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Nighttime sky gazers looking for shooting stars sometimes catch a glimpse of a slower, brighter object streaking across the sky.

It's usually not a meteor, but rather a bolt or a paint chip that is part of the tons of debris floating in Earth's orbit, posing real dangers to space exploration.

A new film opening at Clark Planetarium on Friday called Space Junk 3D highlights some of those risks.

"What's the history of pioneers working through a new frontier? They leave behind stuff, it's what archaeologists find," said Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium. "Space is the final frontier, and we're leaving behind stuff. The legacy of the space age includes footprints on moon, but it also includes orbiting clouds of litter that create a real challenge to orbiting activities."

Don Kessler, retired NASA senior scientist for Orbital Debris and star of the film, wrote a paper in 1978 predicting what will happen as more space junk filled Earth's orbit.

"I was trying to understand ... how long would it take before we had to worry about manmade objects colliding with one another," Kessler told The Tribune.

The answer: Right about now.

In 2007, China's military performed a test of an anti-satellite weapon. It worked, taking out a satellite and creating a massive debris cloud that will orbit for hundreds of years. Two years later, two satellites collided, again forming a huge debris cloud that puts other satellites, rockets and other space vehicles at risk.

"That collision put the icing on the cake," Kessler said. "We now have to pay a lot closer attention to what's going on."

Models show that such collisions will happen about every 10 years, but as those debris clouds expand, so will the likelihood of major damage.

Rules were established in the late 1990s to require all rockets that would be left in orbit to expend all of their fuel before they began orbiting, leveling off the numbers of explosions. But it didn't cut down on the amount of debris floating around the planet.

When Kessler wrote his first paper about space junk collisions, there were about 3,000 objects being monitored and tracked on Earth. Currently, there are more than 16,000 objects.

But in reality, there are probably hundreds of thousands more pieces than that, as only objects the size of softballs or bigger can be tracked. People may not worry about nuts, bolts and paint chips, but they are orbiting at between 15,000 and 17,500 miles per hour, said Patrick Wiggins, NASA Solar System Ambassador to Utah.

"Think about how tiny a bullet is, but you get it moving fast enough and your lights are out for good," Wiggins said.

It's a problem that could hinder space flight in the future, the planetarium's Jarvis said.

"We now have 50-plus years of putting stuff in orbit around the Earth, and we've not been mindful of the debris it leaves behind," Jarvis said. "It's like driving down the highway and scattering wrappers and soda cans out the windows."

There are new regulations in place to help, including requiring satellites to move out of heavily trafficked orbits within 25 years of launching, but they are not long-term solutions. Those new rules, in part, have created some "junkyard orbits" where defunct satellites can move to and be out of the way of active traffic, but that will only last so long.

"It's the idea that you solve pollution by dilution, but within those regions, things will start colliding," Kessler said.

He hopes to see some of the solutions proposed in the film, such as spacecraft that use nets to collect the debris or even a massive, automated recycling center in orbit. But he worries that the political will doesn't exist to support such endeavors.

"Like so many other environmental issues we've faced, we don't do what's needed until it's expensive to correct," Kessler said. "This is one problem that is going to be expensive to correct."

Twitter: @sheena5427 —

Space Junk 3D

Where • Clark Planetarium ATK IMAX Theater,110 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City

When • Several shows daily. Visit http://www.clarkplanetarium.com for schedule

Run Time • 38 minutes

Price • $6 for shows before 5:30 p.m., $8 for adults, $6 for children after 5:30 p.m.

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