Orbital debris graphic that was computer generated from a distant oblique vantage point to provide a good view of the object population in the geosynchronous region (around 35,785 km altitude). (Photo: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Computer generated image of space junk surrounding Earth. (Image: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

When a hunk of space junk came hurtling close to the International Space Station last week, the crew took shelter in their Soyuz return vehicle as a precaution.

Although the object – piece of an old Russian Cosmos communications satellite – bypassed them, the danger posed by the growing collection of orbital debris is quite real.

A good-sized area of outer space, surrounding our planet, has become a virtual junkyard of debris that’s been accumulating since the beginning of the Space Age in the late 1950’s.

Delta 2nd Stage Stainless Steel Cylindrical Propellant Tank; landed in Georgetown, TX  (Photo: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

This Delta 2nd stage stainless steel cylindrical propellant tank landed in Georgetown, Texas in 1997 (Photo: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Today,  the amount of space debris is estimated to be in the tens of millions, ranging from spent rocket stages, old and non-functioning satellites, to tiny particles of rubble, all the result of collisions or simple erosion of spacecraft that have been up in space, some of them for decades.

The incident last week isn’t the first time astronauts have been threatened by space junk;  the ISS had two other close calls last year.

Usually the space station performs what NASA calls a “debris avoidance maneuver” and simply moves itself slightly out of harm’s way.

The ISS might be having more space junk encounters since changing position in the last year, moving into an area with a slightly higher density of orbital debris.

Avoiding and protecting the space station from debris is a problem that requires vigilance from ISS support teams on Earth. It’s also a problem that isn’t going away any time soon.

NASA’s been concerned about the issue for a while. In 1979,  the space agency opened the Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

A tiny piece of space junk (a paint fleck) damaged the window of the space shuttle during the STS-7 mission (Photo: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

A tiny piece of space junk (a paint fleck) damaged the window of the space shuttle during the STS-7 mission (Photo: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Gene Stansbery, the office’s program manager, says even the smallest fragments of orbital debris can be harmful to spacecraft in orbit around the Earth – such as the ISS and communications and weather satellites we depend on.

Even the tiniest pieces of space trash are dangerous, in part because they’re moving at tremendous speeds, at a velocity of 11 kilometers per second. Early in the space shuttle program, during the STS-7 mission,  a tiny paint fleck hurtling through space hit a shuttle window, causing so much damage the entire window had to be replaced.

NASA’s Orbital Debris Program office isn’t the only US agency  keeping an eye on wayward space junk.  The US Department of Defense, according to Stansbery, has a worldwide network that can track objects, in low Earth orbit, as small as 10 centimeters in size.

Some of space junk has returned to Earth, but it could take decades or even centuries, for other pieces of space debris to do the same. And, predicting just where it will land, is difficult, if not impossible to do.

Gene Stansbery talks more about space junk on this week’s radio edition of “Science World.” Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

[audio://blogs.voanews.com/science-world/files/2012/03/One-on-One-Gene-Stansberry-NASA-Space-Junk.mp3|titles=One on One – Gene Stansberry – NASA – Space Junk]

Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include: