Space Debris: The Earth’s Orbiting Threat
Earlier in July, a suspicious object washed up on a remote beach in Western Australia. This chunk of golden metal was reported to be a piece of space debris that found its way back to Earth.
And it is not the only one. Today, thousands of defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, metal shards from collisions, and other remnants of human space exploration are orbiting the Earth at breakneck speeds.
In this graphic, Preyash Shah uses tracking data from the Space-Track.org, maintained by the U.S. Space Force, to help visualize just how much debris is currently orbiting the Earth, while identifying the biggest contributors of this celestial clutter.
Note: Many spent rocket bodies are still actively tracked and controlled by their launch authorities, and the source tracks these separately. Space debris includes spent rocket bodies that are defunct and uncontrolled.
Ranked: Countries Responsible for the Most Space Debris
According to the data, there are roughly 14,000 small, medium, and large debris objects floating about in low Earth orbit as of May 2023. And this is not counting the millions of tiny debris fragments that are too small to be tracked.
Although space debris is a global problem, certain countries have played a larger role in contributing to the clutter. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Russia (formerly USSR) led the space race with the highest number of launched space objects. In the 1970s, they were joined by China, and objects from all three countries account for the vast majority of today’s space debris:
|Space Debris Contributor||# of Space Debris|
|🇷🇺 Russia (including USSR)||4,521|
|🇺🇸 United States||4,317|
|🇨🇳 China / 🇧🇷 Brazil||25|
|🇪🇺 European Space Agency||22|
*China-Brazil space debris originates from various cooperational space programs over the years
The debris count of Russia—including former launches by the Soviet Union—currently stands at 4,521. But the U.S. and China are not far behind with more than 4,000 each. And though many of these are accumulated over time, thousands of debris are created in single catastrophic moments.
China’s anti-satellite test in 2007 destroyed its own weather satellite, creating 3,500 space debris pieces. Likewise, the 2009 collision between inactive Russian satellite Cosmos-2251 and operational U.S. communications satellite Iridium 33 created over 2,000 pieces of debris.
Moving at high speeds, even tiny fragments of debris can cause catastrophic collisions. And with companies like SpaceX launching expansive satellite networks, these numbers are bound to grow.
Clearer Skies on the Horizon?
Addressing the space debris issue requires a multi-faceted approach involving international cooperation, advanced technology, and responsible space practices.
Scientists and engineers are actively exploring methods to clean up debris, including concepts like space-based debris removal systems and novel deorbiting techniques.
Some space agencies like the European Space Agency are also making plans to ensure their space technology is designed with safe disposal plans to significantly reduce the accumulation of space junk.
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
Visualized: The 4 Billion Year Path of Human Evolution
From single cells to bipedalism, humans have come a long way. Explore the fascinating journey of human evolution in this infographic.
The 4 Billion Year Path of Human Evolution
The story of human evolution is a fascinating one, stretching back in an unbroken chain over millions of years.
From the tiniest protocells to modern humans, our species has undergone a remarkable journey of adaptation, innovation, and survival.
In this article, we take a look at the key developmental stages in the evolution of life on Earth that led to the emergence of Homo sapiens—us!
From Protocells to People
Evolution is the result of millions of minute mutations over millions of years, but the evolutionary process that created us can bucketed into a few key categories.
1. Protocells and Early Microorganisms
The first life forms on Earth were simple, single-celled microorganisms known as protocells. These precursor cells lacked a nucleus or other membrane-bound organelles, and they had simple genetic proteins called RNA.
Over time, RNA complexified into the more stable DNA. Protocells slowly developed specialized organelles, becoming more complex microbes that would eventually form eukaryotes – the complex, unicellular organisms that would birth a diverse array of life forms, from simple sponges to complex animals.
2. The First Animals
Dickinsonia is the earliest example of an animal we know of. Though it was a simple, flat creature that lacked a mouth or digestive system, it symbolizes the first multicellular organism of substantial complexity.
Over time, the first sophisticated organ systems began to arise. Bilateral symmetry emerged, as well as early versions of the nervous and circulatory systems. Simple eyes, called eyespots, also appeared around the time that spinal cords and vertebrate creatures began to emerge.
3. Fish and Tetrapods
One of the most significant developments in the evolution of life was the transition from marine to terrestrial environments.
Up until 500 million years ago, all life was sequestered in the sea. Fish were the first vertebrates and introduced additional organs like stomachs, spleens, and body components like scales, teeth, blood, and more. Bony fish arose, and over time their development brought about sophisticated changes to the skeletal system, eventually producing “proto-limbs” that would enable organisms to walk on land.
Researchers are still unsure which specific organism might have first crawled on land, but candidates share these pre-limb characteristics. Tiktaalik is one popular candidate because it had specialized bones that suggest it could support its own weight while moving out of shallow waters.
These creatures eventually became the tetrapods (“four-footed”), and they had features like four-legs, a backbone, and lungs which could absorb oxygen from air. All the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals that followed are descendants of the original tetrapods.
4. The First Mammals
Around 200 million years ago, the first mammals emerged. These early mammals were small, shrew-like creatures that lived alongside the dinosaurs. Over time, however, mammals evolved hair, specialized teeth, sweat glands to regulate body temperature, and a more efficient circulatory system.
Mammals also brought about features like nocturnality, mammary glands, external genitalia, and a variety of other features that distinguished them from other living species at the time, like birds or reptiles.
5. The Great Apes and First Homo Species
Around 7 million years ago, the first great apes emerged in Africa. These apes, such as orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, were highly intelligent and social creatures that lived in complex communities. Over time, one lineage of apes would give rise to the first members of the genus Homo, which includes our own species.
The main developmental changes during this time were the full-time bipedalism of apes, increasing brain size, and advanced bone development that enabled dexterity for tool construction and hunting. Inventions like fire and clothing arose early in the Homo genus, and eventually complex language, hair loss, and dramatic facial changes would evolve.
Researchers struggle with resolving the exact progression of the Homo species. Many Homo species existed at the same time, and since many fossil records overlap, resolving which ones came first is an area of intense focus.
The Future of Human Evolution
As humans continue to evolve, we can expect to see significant changes in our physical and cognitive abilities over the next 10,000 years.
With the rise of technology and the increasing interconnectedness of the world, we may see a shift towards a more globalized and homogeneous human population, with less genetic diversity.
This has been described as “The Great Averaging”, where genetic diversity minimizes and we start to become more alike.
Other theories suggest that we might develop features like a taller, lighter build, with smaller brains and a less aggressive personality.
However, as with all evolution, these changes will be shaped by a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and cultural factors. It is impossible to predict exactly how humans will evolve over the next 10,000 years, but one thing is certain: the future of human evolution will be shaped by the choices we make today.
Note: This is a complex topic with new research being published all the time. We’ll continue to dynamically update this graphic to reflect the most recent understanding of evolution.
Green2 weeks ago
Which Countries Are Most Reliant on Coal?
VC+4 weeks ago
What’s New on VC+ in July
Markets1 week ago
The Top Performing S&P 500 Sectors Over the Business Cycle
Politics3 weeks ago
How Do Chinese Citizens Feel About Other Countries?
Debt1 week ago
Animated: Global Debt Projections (2005-2027P)
Misc3 weeks ago
Ranked: The World’s Most Valuable Football Club Brands
Money1 week ago
Ranked: The 15 Richest Multi-Generational Families in Asia
Markets3 weeks ago
Does “Made in America” Still Matter to Consumers?