Hey! Pick that up!
Take Out the Trash
After completing a seven-hour spacewalk to move an airlock from one part of the International Space Station to another, Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin intentionally yeeted a sizeable bundle of discarded hardware drift away into space.
“Bye bye,” said one of the cosmonauts after letting go of the bundle during a livestream of the spacewalk. “Just flies beautifully.”
While that sound feel like the equivalent of throwing trash out a car window, experts say the bundle will harmlessly burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, the BBC reports — effectively using the atmosphere as an enormous trash incinerator.
While it was an intentional act, experts have warned that errant pieces of astronaut equipment could add to our existing space junk problem.
It’s not always intentional. For instance, NASA astronaut Ed White infamously lost a spare glove while venturing outside of the Gemini 4 spacecraft back in 1965. In 2017, astronauts Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough lost a bag containing a debris shield during a spacewalk.
Still, burning up junk in the atmosphere has become a well-established convention for the space station. Crew members regularly load their trash into a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to have it and the garbage inside of it burn up on re-entry.
Other manmade objects orbiting the planet, including SpaceX’s broadband-beaming internet satellites, are also designed to burn up in the atmosphere at the end of their lifespan.
Nonetheless, something about watching cosmonauts send a giant pack of discarded hardware spinning into the distance feels off.
After all, the Earth’s orbit has become incredibly cluttered over the years as human space exploration efforts have increased.
The Department of Defense is tracking more than 23,000 pieces of debris larger than the size of a softball in the Earth’s orbit. Experts estimate there are some 100 million pieces of debris roughly one millimeter in diameter littering the space around our planet.
Whether the station will ever find itself in the ironic position of encountering errant hardware left behind by its own spacewalking astronauts, though, remains to be seen.
More on space littering: Two Large Chunks of Space Debris Just Almost Collided in an Epic Disaster