‘Space junk’ races at 10 times the speed of a bullet

In space, no one can see the minuscule threats that risk total annihilation.

Now circling Earth’s orbit are more than 128 million pieces of refuse leftover from degrading satellites, byproducts of past flight missions and other cosmic accidents — and that’s just counting the debris that scientists have the ability to detect.

But even the smallest specimens of space waste, such as paint chips, are anything but trivial, according to a recent report by LiveScience.

Take an incident first reported in 2016 by European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake, who snapped a photo of a pea-sized dent in the glass window of the International Space Station, left by a crumb of garbage no more than a few thousandths of a millimeter across — about the width of floss.

When an object that small can cause visible damage, it’s a wonder how the approximately 34,000 pieces of moderately sized debris — stuff larger than 4 inches — isn’t wreaking more havoc for astronauts. Anything bigger than what was seen in the 2016 incident “would be catastrophic,” said University of Arizona astronomer Vishnu Reddy.

“It all comes down to velocity,” Reddy told LiveScience, adding that objects circling Earth in orbit with the ISS — around 250 miles above Earth — are moving up to 17,500 mph, according to NASA, which is about 10 times faster than a speeding bullet.

Direction also plays a role, as objects hurtling through space toward each other will suffer a more significant impact than those moving along adjacent paths — as with cars on the road, explained Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor Kerri Cahoy.

For now, the best way for astronauts to prevent such disasters includes tracking the trash and devising flight plans to avoid its path; meanwhile, scientists continue to develop new innovations for cleaning up the junk — though current means are prohibitively expensive and require years of planning.