After Space Station Tiangong-1 Crashes, a Look at Other Garbage Threatening Earth

The wayward Chinese space station Tiangong-1 crashed into the Pacific on Sunday night, ending a weeks-long brouhaha as people wondered whether the parts that survived the spacecraft's fiery rush through Earth's atmosphere would land on their heads.

While the defunct station dropped safely in the water, there's plenty more garbage around the planet that could cause trouble.

For starters, Earth's lower orbit is choked with hundreds of thousands of space debris pieces that remain from old satellites and equipment like launchers dating back as far as the start of the Space Race. Although most are small, they are moving as fast as 17,500 miles per hour—a speed about 10 times faster than a bullet—and can do some damage, no matter how tiny.

Visualizing that amount of material can be rough, so the website Stuff in Space can help bring it home. It shows what a cluttered mess Earth's orbit is. It also allows the user to sort the space junk by source if, for example, someone wanted to see what SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets have left behind. The most recent addition is some leftovers from a rocket body that is cruising at about 8,700 miles above the Earth and moving about 2.5 miles per second—or 9,000 miles per hour.

The debris floating around Earth includes leftover pieces from SpaceX rocket launches. Stuff in Space/screenshot

Scientists have been struggling for years to figure out what to do with space debris. Collisions have made small impacts in the International Space Station, which poses a risk to astronauts living there. The debris also narrows the spots through which space agencies and companies can launch future missions to Mars or neighboring solar systems.

One recent concept is a space "harpoon," which the company Airbus is building to throw at a large satellite called Envisat that is out of commission. The harpoon would pierce the satellite and then move it in such a way that it would burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Scientists in China, the nation behind the Tiangong-1, have proposed using lasers to break up the larger chunks into smaller pieces.

Until the world's experts figure out what to do with all the space trash up there, you can keep an eye on the debris and track the pieces that fall to Earth on Satview. It also shows the satellites in orbit, of which more than 1,700 are still operating.