EnvironmentScienceSecurityTechnology

Houston, We Have A Problem With Space Junk

To most, the fact that the planet is facing a massive and urgent waste accumulation problem is no secret. The evidence is literally piling up. Over the course of the past decades, several colossal garbage patches consisting of marine debris have been forming. The largest of them, the Great Pacific garbage patch, is now three times the size of France and covers 1.6 million square kilometres. This concentration of waste has changed the environment to such an extent that an ecosystem adapted to our debris-filled habitat has begun to develop, dubbed the plastisphere. This accumulation of waste has become a potent symbol of the environmental challenges that the word is facing. However, while most attention and effort have been focused on the planet itself, we are well on our way to making space our next dumping ground.

According to NASA, more than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are tracked as they orbit the Earth. Initially space might seem like a convenient place to store waste. However, the speed at which the debris orbits is enough to seriously damage a satellite or a spacecraft upon collision. NASA estimates that anything larger than a baseball poses a potentially catastrophic threat to the international space station. In fact, even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities, proven by the cracking of the Space Shuttle’s windshield.

Impacts from space debris on the loose on the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/flickr

The reality of these dangers became painfully clear in July this year. The 162 million dollar CryoSat-2 spacecraft, monitoring ice levels on the planet, suddenly saw itself on collision course with an uncontrollable hurtling piece of space debris. While boosting the spacecraft’s thrusters to gain a higher orbit saved the day, these emergency spacecraft rescue operations are becoming more and more frequent.

A slow but steady increase of objects in orbit around the earth has been the trend since the mid-1960s. In 2017 however, more than 400 satellites were launched into orbit, over 4 times the yearly average for 2000–2010. The sudden burst is in part fuelled by the popularity of large companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Boeing and Airbus. These new actors in the space-game have grand plans of deploying thousands of communications satellites into space over the next few years. If all these proposed “megaconstellations” go up, they will roughly equal the number of satellites that humanity has launched in the history of spaceflight. While these companies might be at the forefront of finding environmentally friendly solutions, advancing technology and revolutionising space engineering, their vision will also cause a drastic escalation in space traffic.

A sharp rise in space traffic would exacerbate problems related to space debris collisions. In 2009, a US commercial satellite smashed into an inactive Russian communication satellite called Cosmos-2251. The result was thousands of new pieces of orbiting waste, each posing the same threat to other orbiting vessels. If similar large collisions become a common occurrence, a few uncontrolled crashes could generate enough debris to set off a runaway cascade of fragments. With 7,500 tons of garbage already circling the Earth, the possibility of further waste is not a desirable outcome for any party involved.

Indeed, were excessive amounts of collisions to happen, we run the risk of rendering near-Earth space unusable. With society being so highly dependent on satellite technology and space monitoring, this would most certainly have a great impact on our everyday lives.

Yet as with many human-made environmental threats, awareness is on the rise and there are multiple initiatives working on combatting the problem of space waste accumulation. Some ideas include Star Wars style lasers, giant lassos, adhesive blankets, and low-power lasers to gently nudge debris away from collision paths. Aerospace engineers from MIT have developed laser sensing technique that can decipher not only where but what kind of space junk may be passing overhead.

RemoveDEBRIS is designed to test different methods of combatting space junk accumulation, Photo: NanoRacks/Flickr

Earlier this year, a SpaceX cargo ship was launched with a satellite designed to test methods of space debris removal. The satellite was a collaboration between ten influential space companies and organisations. Multiple methods of eliminating orbiting waste are due to be tested, and on September 16th, the satellite successfully completed its first space junk capture. With this initial success, optimism is high for the upcoming missions in 2018 and 2019.

Critics however, point to a hard-to-overlook issue; individual nets cannot possibly tackle the millions of particles already in orbit. Our efforts to clean up the man-made space junkyard needs to reach further. With recent research pointing out a bleak time ahead for our planet, for many the future lies in the stars. Elon Musk and SpaceX are set on colonizing Mars, and dystopian movies forecast human colonies in giant spaceships. If we ever were to reach these out-of-this-world goals, a good place to start would be to not render our own escape path unusable.

A global audience was watching as “Starman” launched into space in a red Tesla with the words “Don’t Panic.” While the SpaceX launch was seen as big moment for our future adventures in space, perhaps a bit of panic would serve to fast track our efforts to face our problems instead of running towards an escape. While the Great Pacific garbage patch is not yet concentrated enough to be seen from space, the rapid accumulation of waste in the ocean might soon get us there.

One limitation of human beings is that we tend to live in the now. We do not act until it is all too obvious that something is wrong. This is a point made many times over. Thinking in the now champions technological achievements, but it also creates a serious blind spot: We forget that our actions in the present could have serious consequences in the future. This is as true in space as it is on Earth.

Signe Davidson

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