A rocket part set to slam into the far side of the moon Friday morning highlights the growing issue of space junk in orbit around Earth, experts say



A leftover rocket part is on a collision course with the Moon. The hunk of metal will crash into the Moon at a blazing 5,800 miles an hour tomorrow. And while experts say there's no potential threat to us here on Earth, it does highlight a growing problem around our planet - space junk. From member station WMFE in Orlando, Brendan Byrne reports.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Experts say the rocket part is a piece of a Chinese spacecraft launched in 2014 on a path to become another crater on the lunar surface.

PHILIP METZGER: If you were there on the Moon, it would look like a meteorite hitting the Moon - a rather large one - or a small asteroid.

BYRNE: Philip Metzger is a planetary scientist at the Florida Space Institute and says the Moon is no stranger to getting smacked with things. Dozens of spacecraft have crashed into its surface, and it's constantly bombarded by asteroids and meteors.

METZGER: Crater upon crater upon crater. There's not a single spot of the moon that hasn't been turned over many times in the past.

BYRNE: For now, space junk isn't a concern for the Moon. But it is a growing problem closer to home, says Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineer at the University of Texas Austin and chief scientist at Privateer, a company aimed at tracking space debris.

MORIBA JAH: Out of the 50,000, probably about 5,000 are working. Everything else is garbage, so 90% of what we track is junk.

BYRNE: We rely on those working satellites in space for service down here on Earth like GPS and communication, and tracking space junk is important in keeping those satellites working. Things in space travel at incredibly fast speeds, says Jah - something like 15 times the speed of a bullet.

JAH: Nothing is protecting these satellites from getting schwacked (ph) by a piece of junk or whatever, and then the capability goes away.

BYRNE: Space is big, and the chances of collision are low. But the more and more stuff we put in space, the higher the risk. Last year the Russian military blew up a defunct satellite in space with a missile, causing thousands of pieces of debris that threatened to strike the International Space Station. The U.S. government condemned the move. Space policy analyst Laura Forczyk says both government agencies and the private sector are now taking a greater interest in keeping space clean.

LAURA FORCZYK: Just like we've polluted our surface of Earth and our waters, we have also polluted the skies, and it's one thing that we now need to clean up for the benefit of all humankind.

BYRNE: Back at the Moon, NASA is planning a handful of human missions in the 2020s, along with science missions on the lunar surface and even a moon base space station, even more reason to keep space junk under control. For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

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