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Op-Ed: The problem with space debris, and the environmental crisis in the skies

Astronaut Dale A. Gardner grabs the spinning and malfunctioned WESTAR VI satellite during the Shuttle’s 14th flight, STS-51A. Had it not been for the Space Shuttle’s ability to return satellites to Earth for repair, WESTAR and other satellites at the time would have become useless debris. (Image credit: Joseph Allen/NASA)

DEC. 3, 2020–Throughout the rise of the environmental movement, there have been a number of powerful images that have defined the fight against pollution and overconsumption; polar bears clinging to shards of ice, plastic bags in the Challenger Deep, and factories generating smog over ruined landscapes. It seems that only in space does humanity see Earth’s majesty, a marble suspended in a sunbeam, William Anders’ image of our mother, rising over the surface of a cratered moon. Is the final frontier the final place humanity can go for true, natural beauty?

Perhaps not. There is another, less visible threat to modern society that lies right under our noses, rather, above our heads. Garbage, tumbling in space, filling Earth’s orbit with refuse from exploration and military conquests past, all almost invisible to the public eye. Orbital debris has remained an issue since the first endeavors of humankind into space, and it has already resulted in a variety of close calls and accidents that have threatened the integrity of humanity’s spaceflight endeavors today. The proliferation of space came at a time of rapid expansion of environmental degradation, and for many years, has slipped by the critics of that degradation. However, the collision of two satellites in 2009, Iridium 33, a commercial communications satellite, and the inactive Russian Cosmos 2251, served as a wakeup call for a problem that had been impacting humankind quite silently for years. This threat of collision was first realized by physicist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, and by the time the 2009 collision happened, governments and corporations began to understand how unsustainable the practice of deposition of debris into space was and continues to be.

To consider space debris an environmental problem, as one should, they must consider the ways in which environmental problems impact human societies, and compare them with the ways space debris can impact the everyday person. One of the core comparisons of space debris to terrestrial pollution is that it is in itself, a wasteful enterprise. Returning objects from space is, to put it lightly, difficult, and the ways that we can reuse things becomes challenging. This draws considerable parallels to the study of landfills, and the failure of our economic systems to innovate in a way that makes recycling and reusability truly mainstream.

While some companies, such as Rocket Lab, United Launch Alliance, and now even Iridium, make an effort to negate space debris when possible, commercial communications satellites may sit in orbit for hundreds of thousands of years if not removed. This is the styrofoam cup of space, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces that only pose more of a threat to continued occupation and utilization of space itself. Another comparison, albeit less obvious, is the direct parallel of consumerism and commercial expansion on Earth with the expansion of commercial footholds in space. In many ways, commercializing space can be useful in accomplishing science and exploration goals, but also sets a dangerous precedent for the exploitation and contamination of a pristine environment. As corporations continue to expand at a drastic rate, they risk decimating the precarious balance that satellites in various orbital regimes hang within.

The signing of the Outer Space Treaty at the United Nations, in 1967. By now, every nation with a space program has ratified the treaty. Credit: United Nations

Under the Outer Space Treaty, ratified by the United Nations in 1967, corporations are largely exempt from the governing rules that have largely maintained peace and order in space. Without limitations, corporations have made their own plans for conquest, like an orbital deforestation that could leave destruction in its wake. Left unchecked, growth and exploitation could leave orbital regimes useless and the common heritage of humankind, the night sky, a distant memory.

Space, in itself, is an environment, one with biomes, distinct regions, and the ability to become a new home for humankind, especially now as we have sustained life beyond Earth for the past twenty years, nonstop. It is within this new realm that we, as humans, find new resources and means for exploration, but must work to establish a precedent for the protection of this place. The creation of a “Space National Park” (which may sound very sci-fi) may be closer to reality than one would think.

Many different factors contributed to the creation of the debris problem we face today. The perception of space as vast and empty, and humanity’s perceived isolation in the universe has let our minds and habits slip, filling Earth’s orbital regimes with debris. In some instances, we even confuse our own garbage for near-earth asteroids. For example, in a very recent case (Nov. 24), what was previously thought to be a near-earth asteroid was instead found to be a spent rocket stage from the Surveyor 2 mission – launched some 54 years ago in 1966. Without modern rules that can consistently adapt to new situations, humanity cannot hope to control space debris and preserve orbital security, in a situation very much akin to the imperative of controlling climate change back down on Earth.

All space programs, and humanity as a whole, must engage in science and good stewardship in conjunction, with lab science and social science working hand in hand. Establishing concrete reasons for our behavior, innovating solutions and working together, these are all ways we can tackle our troubles in space with debris and on the ground with climate. One of the core tenets of combating space debris is collaboration, which unfortunately takes time. However, it is the hope of many that companies and countries can come to the table on a level playing field and take an in-depth look at their behaviors and decide to do better.  

We do not have forever, just as we do not have forever on Earth. This imperative, crucial moment is upon us, and as a species we must acknowledge that orbital debris is both an environmental and existential problem, along with asking ourselves, what can we do to solve it? In order to tackle our troubles, in space and on Earth, we must radically reform the system and implement new protective environmental policy to ensure that we can realistically protect our terrestrial and extraterrestrial environments. If humanity does nothing, and continues to expand without first tackling the dangerous situation we have built over the past sixty years, we may inadvertently construct a cage around our planet, an artificial prison of our own design, that may prevent us from leaving the cradle of our home world, and inevitably result in our long term demise. We can only spread our wings and explore the stars if the sky is first clear enough to do so.

Nick A. is an environmental analyst who specializes in orbital debris. This is their first contribution to Space Scout. They can be found on Twitter here.

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