If we don’t clean up our space junk, we might be cut off from the rest of the universe:
NASA claims that more than 500,000 pieces of debris, ranging from the size of a marble to eight tons, are in orbit. These scattered fragments travel at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. In the forthcoming movie Gravity, a piece of satellite debris destroys a shuttle, but even much smaller objects such as chips of paint could damage a satellite, space station, or a spacecraft carrying astronauts. A 2009 study performed by all the major space agencies – including ESA, NASA, and Roscosmos – revealed that even if no further space launches occur, the amount of orbital debris will continue to increase. More than simply littering Earth’s low orbits, we would be hindering our ability to safely travel beyond it.
The European Space Agency’s Clean Space Initiative is working on a solution, but it won’t be an quick or easy:
The only way to preserve key orbits is to remove the debris, like picking up scraps of refuse blowing down a highway. … “It’s an extremely challenging mission,” says Luisa Innocenti, the head of the Clean Space Office. “Getting close to the debris is dangerous because you need to maneuver around the uncontrolled object.” This means developing a guidance and navigation control system where chasers stay close to the targeted debris. A capturing mechanism – a big net, a harpoon, a robotic arm, or a giant tentacle that, amid the stars, would clamp down on the object – would collect the debris and return it to Earth. The goal is to have a mission in 2022.