You may have heard about space pollution. And no, it’s not about littering (remaining) open spaces in our cities, it’s about space. The skies if you like. We’ve managed to pollute every corner of the Earth and relentlessly continued with space. Is it time to leave?
It may sound like a joke, but it’s true. The space around Earth is now so full of junk (in addition to thousands of working satellites) that it’s a danger to space missions. They have to be ever more carefully planned in order to avoid collisions. And – needless to say – collisions in space are fatal. There is even a company, Leolabs, that keeps track of it all.
The ‘pollution’ – actually, ‘debris’ is more accurate – is mostly leftovers from 50 years of space activities: Decommissioned, damaged or failed satellites, ‘upper-stage rocket bodies’ from manned or unmanned space activities, plus lots of smaller objects intentionally or accidentally left in space – from space stations or other missions. Even the smallest object, like a lost wrench, can fatally damage a spacecraft or satellite at high speed…
In addition to the junk, we have tens of thousands communication satellites in operation, and more being added almost monthly, providing TV, GPS, radio, Internet and communication services. Literally keeping our pockets beeping even when the power is down and the cell towers burned in a fire or bombed by Putin. Important and – as evidenced in Ukraine and in forest and brush fires around the globe – critical to survival.
Working satellites are mostly geostationary, under ground control and may be positioned or repositioned. It’s the total density and the amount of junk that represents a growing problem much faster than anyone anticipated. NASA created the so-called 25-year rule in 1990, which calls for space junk to be removed no later than 25 years after being ‘decommissioned’ for whatever reason. The UN and the European Space Agency later adopted the same rule. But there is no way to enforce it – except for commercial communication satellites serving ‘civilized’ areas: Authorities can revoke or hold back licenses if rules aren’n being followed.
25 years from ‘death’ to ‘cremation’ may have seemed reasonable 30 years ago when a few thousand satellites shared the skies. And many of the powers that be still seem to think this is good enough. However, the numbers tell a different story. If expansion continues at the current rate, we will have a serious problem within 10 years.
[UPDATE] Case in point: In late October 2022 the ISS space station had to be moved in order to keep safe distance from Russian space debris, originating from the ‘irresponsible’ (according to NASA) testing of weapons in space: ISS Dodges Russian Space Junk With Debris Avoidance Maneuver.
As pointed out by Bruce McClintock, head of Santa Monica based Space Enterprise Initiative, in a recent Wired Article (The FCC’s Rules on Space Junk Just Got Stricter):
… the biggest problem isn’t how much time owners have to deorbit their spacecraft—it’s that there’s no enforcement mechanism ensuring that they follow through on their plans. “An argument against a five-year rule, people will say, is that it’s a bigger concern that people are not yet complying with the 25-year rule,” he says. “If we had a higher compliance with the 25-year rule, we wouldn’t need a five-year rule.”
He’s referring to a recent initiative by the FCC (the US Federal Communications Commission) to change the 25 year limit to 5. Which many researchers close to the matter think is still too little, too late, and argue that one year makes more sense. After all, we’re talking about junk, why wait? And – by the way – the smaller satellites are relatively easy to get rid of – at least on paper, if they’re still responding to commands from Earth: Just move them to a lower altitude and they will eventually enter the atmosphere and get incinerated.
Like all types of pollution, when we become aware of it, the problem and the challenge become obvious. And while it may seem like a tongue-in-cheek observation, it is not: Given the growth in numbers in the skies we may soon discover that we’ve locked ourselves in. Thus the heading – is it time to leave?
It’s a rhetorical, but interesting question: When – if ever – will there be an alternative world for the human species, and will it be viable before we’ve locked ourselves in?
A ‘millions dollar question’ if we ever saw one. If it triggers your interest, spend some time with Michio Kaku and his book The Future of Humanity from 2018 (and check some of his YouTube videos). It’s sobering, educating and fascinating at the same time – and as relevant in 2022 as in 2018, even though developments in the meanwhile have changed some of the parameters.
What it comes down to is that survival requires a change of mindset, of attitude. And for space pollution, just like most other kinds of pollution, the direction in which we’re heading is suicidal. Mars (or something similar) is still 50+ years away for the few, 100+ years for the many … for the same reason that our utility bills are skyrocketing these days: We don’t have enough energy!
Bottom line? Save the planet, there is no alternative. A famous passage from The Eagles’ Hotel California fits: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”