Space Junk: The Growing Swarm of Trash in Our Atmosphere
Debris from spacecraft could prevent future space travel - here’s how we can fix it.
Humans are profoundly gifted at creating trash. No matter where you travel on earth, there are remnants of human debris. The highest points on earth are littered with climbing equipment from failed expeditions, the lowest trenches have microplastics. It’s no well-kept secret that we’re a species of litterbugs.
But, our propensity for creating waste isn’t even confined to our beautiful blue planet. Already, with the limited space exploration we’ve undertaken, we’ve created an impressive amount of debris. The waste from spacecraft, not so lovingly called “space junk” by scientists, is currently orbiting our planet at about 17,000 miles per hour.
Considering we’ve only been traveling to space for 50 years, the amount of debris we’ve left in orbit is staggering. Experts estimate that there are about 3,000 dead satellites in orbit and, more alarmingly, 34,000 pieces of medium-sized space junk and millions of pieces of mini-junk.
So, why does it matter? Junk in the lifeless void of space isn’t harming any animals or destroying ecosystems like the junk we have nearby. Right now, space junk isn’t a big deal. But it could be one day. If we don’t manage our junk, we might ruin space travel for everyone. Without proper care and mitigation today, we’ll effectively be trapping humanity on earth. Not the wisest choice, considering the aforementioned trashing of the planet.
We need to fix our space junk problem.
Here’s how we can save space travel:
Kessler, Kessler Syndrome, and the Debris Belt
Before hopping into solutions, it helps to understand the full background of the problem. Since almost the beginning of space exploration, scientists have been worrying about it (Scientists are really good at worrying). During the cold war years, both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. were sending out rockets as fast as they could make them. A little over ten years after the launch of Sputnik, there was concern about how the industry was affecting the thermosphere.
Enter Dr. Donald J. Kessler. An astrophysicist for NASA, Kessler worked in the Environmental Effects Project Office. His focus and passion became the space debris conundrum. In 1978, he published the paper, Collision frequency of artificial satellites: The creation of a debris belt, which highlighted the increased probability of collisions as we output more and more junk into orbit. He concluded the paper with a shocking warning: at a certain point, the number of collisions occurring could cause a belt of debris to form around our planet, making it remarkably difficult to continue space travel.
He warned NASA with his mathematical models, the space industry needed “implementation of specialized launch constraints and operational procedures” to delay the formation of the junk belt. But, he feared that it would become a sizable problem by this century.
Cold War and the Tragedy of the Commons
Given that the two states most responsible for space debris were smack dab in the middle of a cold war, asking for collaboration on an environmental issue wasn’t exactly a top priority. The reason for inaction, since the days of Dr. Kessler, has perpetually been getting a cooperative initiative in motion. But, as multiple countries have competitively acted in their own interest in this common space, the thermosphere has continually gained more and more debris over the last 70 years.
But we must have done something to start fixing this problem, right? Well, yes and no. Yes if you count warning of it and talking about it at length. Yes if you count setting up regulations that can choose to follow (or not). But, actual measurable improvements. Not so much. As a result, the situation has grown much direr. According to a now-retired Kessler, “there is now agreement within the community that the debris environment has reached a ‘tipping point’ where debris would continue to increase even if all launches were stopped”. Despite efforts and scientific discussions, the number of yearly launches has skyrocketed, making debris an ongoing and increasing problem.
Now (finally), space-faring governments and businesses are starting to wise up and take action.
Solving the Space Junk Problem
To begin the initiative of improving space waste, international guidelines were recently created. These guidelines, which advocate for spaceship development that minimizes the amount of debris shedding by rockets and satellites, help set a precedent for what individual space agencies should strive to achieve.
Additionally, as we’ve learned more about space travel, we’ve discovered how to make rockets more efficient and less wasteful. In some cases, we’ve managed to even make them reusable! Though the primary driver of this improvement is to reduce costs, this initiative has still had a positive effect on how much new junk we’re disposing of. As this tech improves, it will likely be easier for more space agencies to reduce waste further.
And serendipitously, the same week as I was writing this, the FCC had just made leaps and bounds with recent legislation. Legal steps taken by the FCC are promising to say the least. Though there still certainly needs to be expansion, this is an excellent first step and a good sign that this issue is being taken seriously by the United States government. As the U.S. has long been a leader in space technology, this author hopes to see other countries follow suit with these laws in the near future.
The Future of Space Junk Innovations
So, we’re working on it, but there’s still a long way to go before the issue is solved. But before we see a significant change in the thermosphere, there must first be a change on Earth’s surface.
First and foremost, we need to expand our space regulations. What we have is an excellent start - but there’s still a long way to go before our space disposal is at a sustainable level. We also need to improve the enforcement of these laws. It’s one thing to make an international set of agreements, but it’s a whole other process to make sure they’re being followed across the globe. The adoption of legislation by the United States is promising, but we need more than just that.
Feats of Engineering
As always, new innovations and technologies have the potential for fixing this growing issue. But, the technology is exorbitantly expensive. To have the chance of inventing the tech to fix our garbage, we need a large amount of funding allocated to fix it.
As soon as a large collective of people cares enough about it, starts bothering their politicians, and brings it into the zeitgeist, funding can and will be channeled and change will start happening.
The Power of Science!
Additionally, we might be able to discover a new way to fix the issue - one powered by physics researchers. We’re still figuring out space and how to best function in it, there might one day be some wild new revelation that makes this issue null and void. Beginning the path to space junk solutions can be as simple as giving young generations better physics education and igniting more passion for space and exploration.
The space junk problem is fixable, we just have to take care of it promptly.
We need to act as soon as we can, not when the problem is already here. Preventing a billion pieces of hot metal and plastic from orbiting our planet at 17,000mph is way easier than trying to knock it down. All we have to do is work together as a species and solve the issue in collaboration. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?
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