Space may be the final frontier, but it's also turning into a big junkyard.
With bits of rockets, satellites and other leftovers from more than 50 years of spaceflight surrounding the Earth for thousands of miles in all directions, the space junk problem is more than just academic. And a new film, "Space Junk 3D," is opening today (Jan. 13) in IMAX and 2D digital theaters to spread awareness of the orbital debris threat to the public.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Melissa Butts, who also helmed the films "3D Sun" and "Mars 3D," the new movie uses eye-popping special effects and two pivotal events in space junk history — an unprecedented anti-satellite test by China and the 2009 crash between satellites from the United States and Russia — to illustrate the growing danger of orbital debris.
The message couldn't come at a more appropriate time. In the last four months, two huge old satellites —both more than 20 years old—have fallen from space in uncontrolled death plunges. A third spacecraft, Russia's failed Mars probe Phobos-Grunt, is poised to make its own fall to Earth in the next few days.
The only question is when and where the doomed Mars probe will crash.
"It isn't a coincidence that media headlines of falling debris are growing just as we launch this film," said "Space Junk 3D" director Melissa Butts in a statement. "As we started researching this story, we found that most scientists agree that we've reached this tipping point where orbital debris will continue to grow exponentially if don't address the problem." [Gallery: 'Space Junk 3D' - The Movie]
Father of space junk
That tipping point is known as the Kessler syndrome. It is named after Don Kessler, the former head of NASA's Orbital Debris Office, who appears in the new film and has spent decades studying the orbital debris issue, earning him the unofficial title of "Father of Space Junk." The Kessler syndrome marks the point where there's so much debris around Earth that it crashes into each other, creating more and more space junk in a chain reaction that poses a severe threat to the satellites providing the communications, navigation and other services that daily life depends on.
"My hope is, that with the help of 'Space Junk 3D' that other people will end up learning about the implications of orbital debris," Kessler said in a statement. "Scientists are predicting that the amount of orbital debris will increase. Those predictions are becoming reality today."
Today there are nearly 6,000 tons of space junk traveling at speeds of 17,500 mph (28,500 kph) in low-Earth orbit, the home of the International Space Station and many satellites a few hundred miles above the planet. Further out, nearly 400 dead satellites silently drift in graveyard orbits about 22,369 miles (36,000 km) above Earth.
This space debris is constantly monitored by the U.S. military's Space Surveillance Network to ensure that the swarms of working satellites, not to mention the constantly crewed International Space Station, are safe from collisions. But a report released in September by the National Research Council warned that the amount of space junk orbiting Earth had reached such a high level that it may already have reached Kessler syndrome proportions.
Space junk cleaning crews?
The problem is so critical that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has performed studies to determine the best way to clean up orbital debris. "Space Junk 3D" touches on some of those concepts, including giant nets, lasers, solar sails and tethers to force old satellites back toward Earth, where they can burn up in the atmosphere. Even a futuristic space recycling center, complete with orbital garbage trucks to pick up satellite trash, makes an appearance. [Video: Space Junk 3D - Behind the Scenes]
But Kessler said the solution will not belong to any one country or organization.
"It is a global problem," Kessler said. "It's up to the international community to address the issue, not just the United States."
"Space Junk 3D" is narrated by British actor Tom Wilkinson ("In the Bedroom," "The Patriot") and presented by Melrae Pictures. With a running time of 38 minutes, the film relies on slick digital effects to swiftly present the space junk problem while simultaneously taking advantage of stunning views of Arizona's Meteor Crater and simulated galaxy crashes to depict the role that natural impacts have on the world around us.
But it is the unnatural crashes that pose the biggest threat, especially if humanity will continue to rely on satellites and other space-based assets for day-to-day activities, Kessler said.
"Space is finite and you can't put so much stuff in space without managing the way that you do it," Kessler said. "And that is extremely important."
"Space Junk 3D" will premiere at the Omnimax Dome in St. Louis and be shown at science centers across the country. For theater showings and access to orbital debris resources such as a K-12 Educator's Guide, visit: http://www.spacejunk3d.com.
You can follow Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.