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An image of space junk or "space debris" orbiting around Earth.

An image of space junk or "space debris" orbiting around Earth.

On a Collision Course: Space Junk and Trash Lasers

April 8, 2024

On a Collision Course: Space Junk and Trash Lasers

Ask students: What is space junk? How much space junk is there? Why is space junk a problem? How is space junk related to climate action?


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What Is Space Junk?

While many of us are laser-focused on solving climate issues here on Earth, there’s another growing crisis in the skies above that may require a different kind of laser.

Have you ever heard of space junk, space debris or sky trash?

Space junk, or orbital debris, consists of defunct human-made objects orbiting Earth, such as old satellites, spent rocket stages and fragments from disintegration, erosion and collisions. These objects, no longer serving any purpose, pose risks to active satellites and spacecraft due to their potential for collisions at high speeds. In this edition of Today’s News, Tomorrow’s Lesson, you’ll be able to answer questions like:

  • What is space junk?
  • How much space junk is there?
  • Why is space junk a problem?
  • How is space junk related to climate action?

Students will be able to explore thought-provoking discussion questions following a brief (nine-minute) video, play a space debris cleanup game, learn about U.S. space junk policy and have the option to do a project that asks students to research potential solutions.

Educators: Choose which parts of this lesson are most appropriate for your students, and adapt the lesson to the required level.

Remote video URL

Discussion Questions

  1. Space Debris Problem: How does space exploration contribute to the space debris issue?
  2. Collision Risks: What are the potential dangers of increasing space debris for future space missions?
  3. Cleaning Solutions: Discuss the feasibility of using lasers and nets to reduce space debris. Are these solutions practical?
  4. Kessler Syndrome: What is the Kessler Syndrome, and how could it affect space usability?
  5. Debris Tracking: Why is tracking debris below 10 centimeters in size challenging, and how does it impact debris management?
  6. International Cooperation: Why is international cooperation crucial in addressing the space debris issue?
  7. Space Law Challenges: How do current international space laws complicate debris removal efforts?
  8. Prevention vs. Cleanup: Which approach—mitigating new debris creation or cleaning up existing debris—do you think is more effective and why?

Gamifying Space Junk: Meet ORBITER

ORBITER by Astroscale is a game that educates players about different types of space debris and the threats they pose to activities in space. It challenges players to navigate the orbital highways and understand the risks of collisions with other satellites or pieces of space debris due to the crowded conditions in orbit​. If time permits, ask students to play and consider the following questions while playing:

  1. How do the challenges presented by space debris in ORBITER compare with real-world efforts to manage space debris?
  2. Discuss the importance of space debris removal based on your experience in the game. What technologies or methods could be developed to address this issue in reality?
  3. Reflect on how playing ORBITER has changed your perception of space exploration's sustainability. What actions do you think are necessary to ensure the long-term usability of outer space?
  4. How does the game illustrate the potential consequences of not addressing the space debris problem? Discuss the importance of international cooperation in managing and reducing space debris for future space activities.

ORBITS Act: Supporting Climate Action Through Policy

Have you heard about the ORBITS Act? Check out the news release here and consider or discuss the following questions about the intersection of space policy and climate action, highlighting the importance of sustainable practices in all human activities.

  1. How does removing space debris align with broader environmental and climate protection goals on Earth?
  2. Considering the collaborative nature required for coordinating space traffic and debris removal, how can international cooperation in space sustainability serve as a model for addressing global climate challenges?

Space Debris Research Project

In this project, high school students will delve into the issue of space debris, focusing on its causes, impacts and potential solutions. They will research various methods proposed to mitigate space junk, including the use of lasers and space-based sweepers, as well as analyze the technological, legal and financial challenges involved. The project culminates in a presentation where students propose their innovative solutions, emphasizing the importance of international cooperation and sustainable space exploration practices.

  • Research Assignment: Assign students to research various technologies and methods  being developed to address space debris, such as space tugs, nets, harpoons and ground-based lasers. They should also look into future concepts and ideas not yet in practice. Make sure that student groups do not have overlapping ideas.
  • Solution Proposal: Students will then propose their innovative solution to tackle space debris. This could involve improving an existing technology or inventing a new method. Encourage creativity and feasibility in their proposals.
  • Presentation Preparation: Instruct students to prepare a presentation of their findings and proposed solution. This should include a brief overview of the problem, the technologies they researched, and a detailed explanation of their proposed solution, including how it works, its benefits and any potential challenges.
  • Class Presentation: Have each student or group present their research and proposed solution to the class. Encourage questions and discussion from the audience to foster a deeper understanding of the topic and to critique the proposals constructively.
  • Reflection: Conclude with a reflection session where students share what they learned about space debris management and the importance of innovation in space sustainability.
  • Note: Provide guidance on research sources, presentation structure and critical thinking throughout the project.

Lesson Plans on Climate Change

Explore more resources for educators to find a wide-range of relevant preK-12 lessons on climate change or supporting young people as they continue to lead the conversation around the climate change crisis.

Andy Kratochvil
Andy Kratochvil is an SML team member who loves hiking, video games, scary books, Mexican food, and finding great content for the Share My Lesson community. He studied political science and French at California State University, Fullerton and received his Master’s in International Affairs from... See More

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