Space junk hurtling round the Earth at speeds of up to 17,400mph is one of the greatest environmental problems facing humanity, an expert has warned.

Dr Hugh Lewis believes the growing problem could jeopardise future generations' hopes of living and working in space.

Speaking at the Royal Astronomical Society in London, Dr Lewis said cleaning up orbital space "may take years to achieve" with the help of engineers, scientists, lawyers and economists.

Dr Lewis' warning comes a week after a large metal cylinder, believed to be from a Chinese satellite or aircraft, fell from the sky and slammed into a mining area in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the danger posed by minute debris was illustrated during British astronaut Tim Peake's mission aboard the International Space station, when a fleck of paint left a 7mm chip in a window.

Dr Lewis, who researches space junk at the University of Southampton, said: "Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankind's greatest environmental challenges, but it is also perhaps the one that is the least known.

"Every day we use and rely on services provided by satellites without ever realising how vulnerable they are.

"It's not just that satellites can be damaged or destroyed by space debris today or tomorrow, it's that the actions of our generation may affect the dreams and ambitions of future generations to work and live in space."

NASA defines space debris as "any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves a useful function".

An estimated 100 million pieces of space junk are orbiting the Earth - 27,000 of which are larger than 10cm in width.

Envisat, an Earth observation satellite the size of a double-decker bus, is currently the biggest piece of space debris orbiting Earth.

Other hazards include a swarm of 2,000 pieces of debris left by the collision of a defunct Russian satellite, Cosmo, and a US commercial satellite in 2009.