Space Debris Timeline

Collisions, explosions and safety measures

In 2009, an iridium satellite and a Russian inactive satellite in the Kosmos series collided, resulting in the shrapnel spreading over a large area. In 2012, a Russian Briz-M rocket stage exploded, left with its fuel tanks after a failed launch in August of that year. The debris from Briz-M spread in a wide arc containing over 500 pieces to areas touching the ISS space station and a large number of satellites. As a precautionary measure, the space station was sent up another kilometre to reduce the risk of collision.

Similar manoeuvres have become increasingly common since 2007. That year, a Chinese anti-satellite test led to the collision of two satellites, resulting in the dispersal of over 5,000 fragments to lower, dense levels. It was on 11 January 2007 that a Chinese weather satellite (of the FY-1C (Fengyun series) type) was destroyed at an altitude of 865 kilometres by an exoatmospheric elimination vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. Only twelve days later was the test confirmed by the Chinese authorities.

In 2011, the entire International Space Station (ISS) crew of six was forced to evacuate the space station and take shelter in the escape pods, following an alarm about incoming space debris. What it was remained unknown, but the object passed by the ISS by a margin of just over 250 metres. In this case, the space debris was detected too late for an evasive manoeuvre to be made. The ISS is equipped with shields to protect the space station from small debris.

On 13 February 2015, the American satellite DMSP-F13 exploded at an altitude of 800 kilometres above the Earth's surface. DMSP stands for Defense Meteorological Satellite Program and is a series of military weather satellites belonging to the US Air Force. Their purpose is to monitor weather and atmospheric conditions around war zones in order to conduct the most successful operations possible. DMSP-F13, which provided weather data for military operations in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan and Iraq, was launched in 1995 and had been in orbit for about 20 years when a system failure occurred. This malfunction resulted in the explosion, which initially appeared to have produced some 40 major pieces of debris; however, by early late April 2015, the figure had risen to 149 major pieces and likely up to 50,000 smaller pieces. As the explosion occurred at relatively high altitude, it will be several decades before the debris falls and burns up in the Earth's atmosphere, and until then it will pose a potential threat to satellites in solar synchronous or polar orbit.

Tools and fuel tanks

An example of how space debris can be very concretely generated by humans is the dropped extension of a battery-powered bolt puller by Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang. A similar incident occurred when American astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper dropped her entire toolbox. In both cases, the dropped tools burned up in the Earth's atmosphere and thus no longer pose a collision risk. However, rumours that Fuglesang also lost a helmet camera during a spacewalk are not true, as it was only a case of the camera partially detaching from the helmet.

American astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams did lose her camera during the STS-116 mission while spacewalking, presumably due to some failure in the attachment device. The camera drifted into space before Williams could react.

In 2006, astronaut Piers Sellers of the United Kingdom accidentally dropped a spatula while testing a system to search for cracks in the Space Shuttle Discovery's heat shield during mission STS-112.

Further space debris caused in similar ways to the above examples is mentioned in Edward Tuftes' book Envisioning information. They involve astronaut Ed White's dropped glove, a camera lost by Michael Collins on the Gemini 10 spacecraft in 1966, and garbage bags - as well as a wrench and a toothbrush - thrown out by the Soviet space station MIR cosmonauts during the station's 15 years in orbit around Earth.

Space debris can be dangerous if it re-enters the atmosphere without burning up completely, for example if it is radioactive material. There has only been one case of a human being being hit by falling space debris; this occurred in 1997 when American Lottie Williams was hit by what would later be identified as a piece of a Delta II rocket's fuel tank.

Debris history in particular years

  • As of 2009, 19,000 debris over 5 cm (2 in) were tracked by United States Space Surveillance Network.
  • As of July 2013, estimates of more than 170 million debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 670,000 debris 1–10 cm, and approximately 29,000 larger pieces of debris are in orbit.
  • As of July 2016, nearly 18,000 artificial objects are orbiting above Earth, including 1,419 operational satellites.
  • As of October 2019, nearly 20,000 artificial objects in orbit above the Earth, including 2,218 operational satellites.


Visit our media section for a complete overview.


International Space Station
Orbital Debris
Space Debris
Space Debris History
Space Debris Mitigation
Space Debris Timeline
Space Junk
Space Pollution
Space Trash
Space War
Space Waste


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This page was last changed on 2021-09-21.