An unexpected frontier faces calls for new environmental regulations and a cleanup: outer space.
Why is this important: Space junk clutters orbits and poses an urgent threat to weather, security, communications and other satellites. In the long run, you can’t live or work in space if trash literally hits you.
“Whether [space] is just a place where you put things that provide a service to you and beyond that it means nothing to you, you kind of hit a wall and you’re limited in terms of the things you can do in space.”
— Luc Riesbeck of Astroscale US
Driving the news: Last week, two inoperative satellites nearly collided in orbit, an event that is becoming increasingly common as debris accumulates in space.
- While there are guidelines in place to help determine when and how satellites are de-orbited after their operational life is over, this is not enough, experts say.
- Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNN his company is already struggling to find safe ways to launch its customers’ satellites, in part because of the large number of spacecraft and junk already in orbit.
- A new report on space waste from the European Space Agency last week found that the disposal of old spacecraft in orbit is improving, but it is happening at a slower pace than necessary.
Between the lines: Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin and others believe the space industry has a lot to learn from the environmental movement, including borrowing the language of sustainability to bring the problem back to Earth.
- “Orbital debris is not climate change, but the ecosystem requires environmental protection,” Jah told me. “Whatever narratives we have for sea, land and air, those narratives of environmental protection must have ‘and space’.”
A big question: Where is all the space junk?
- The US military tracks about 25,000 objects in orbit, but there are millions of other smaller pieces of debris that could still threaten spacecraft and people.
- Scientists also don’t know exactly where space debris is at any given time, complicating efforts to clean up orbit.
- Quantifying the space waste problem will more effectively “name and expose” the worst polluters in orbit, a tactic the environmental movement has also used.
What to watch: Experts are working to come up with new models to understand exactly how different types of spacecraft and materials move in orbit to make tracking more efficient.
- Jah is also trying to quantify the “carrying capacity” of certain orbits to know exactly how many satellites can and should be launched in different parts of space at any one time, potentially helping to determine when and if certain constellations can be launched.
- He and others are also calling for better international collaboration on the space waste problem, with the United States lagging behind others like Europe in tackling the problem in innovative ways.