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Why Did an Empty Trash Bag in Space Make Headlines?

On January 25, 2019, what has been termed “an empty trash bag” made headlines because of its erratic movement around earth. The orbiting object, which may or may not be an empty trash bag, has been given the designation A10bMLz for tracking by governing officials.

Why Do Governments Track Orbiting Trash Bags?

Space debris has been accumulating since humans first began to explore the outer reaches of our planet. Just as trash falls from vehicles to clutter streets, so too pieces of junk get lost in space, only to clutter the outer edges of earth.

The debris is certainly NOT a trash bag because astronauts both do not little space intentionally, nor can they. All trash is kept within their spacecraft and disposed of on earth. Scientists believe that A10bMLz is likely a piece of metallic foil which came off during a rocket launch. It was termed a trash bag because of how it floated, meandered, and generally moved like a plastic trash bag in the wind.

Governments around the world keep tabs on such pieces of debris for good reason.

Prone to duplication of efforts, the United States has assigned the task of tracking space junk to two organizations, NASA and USSTRATCOM. Currently, the latter tracks more than 24,000 pieces of space junk and make just over 18,000 of these listed for the public. The remaining 5-6 thousand items are kept confidential. These are the key items of interest to the military organization, USSTRATCOM.

The NASA program ARES likewise tracks these items, but instead of military concerns, NASA is concerned with protecting lives and spacecraft.

Why Track Space Junk?

Those which launch satellites and astronauts into space want to avoid these pieces of debris because they have the potential to disrupt a launch. Indeed, a piece of debris large enough, hitting a rocket traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, could cause severe damage to a craft…even potentially causing loss of life.

Even governments without such interests may have cause to observe such objects because of the potential for impacts with earth. Indeed, items tracked are generally greater than 10 centimeters in size (that’s 3.93 inches in America). The reason is simple: Anything smaller is sure to burn up in the atmosphere on re-entry, so no worries.

In fact, on a recent episode of One Strange Rock on Netflix, one of the astronauts spoke matter-of-factly about space dust and debris which occasionally hits the International Space Station, causing holes in solar panels and such. In fact, there are millions of pieces smaller than 10 cm, any of which could kill a working astronaut or even destroy the Space Station if it hit the right spot.

The astronaut even mentioned that this is a very real fear for those who must work in space. Wow. Suddenly gives us a whole new perspective on the job.

Yet, THINK about that.

TWENTY-FOUR THOUSAND items termed “space junk” are orbiting the earth and any one of them may be large enough to avoid burning up before striking earth at 17,000 miles per hour (that’s 27,358 km for those outside the U.S.).

That is fast.

That is scary.

But ah, that is the nature of space. Or is it?

We cannot help but wonder what an alien race would think of our inability to control contamination of the cosmos?

Oh, and for those who are really interested, the website is an interactive, real-time map of the junk currently orbiting earth including the item designation and orbit. Fun stuff.

And do not forget, next time you are out exploring the cosmos, bringing along something to keep trash in is a good idea. In fact, you can use something as simple and cool as this Roswell sports bag.

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