Oct 20, 2020 - Science

The next environmental crisis could be in space

Illustration of an astronaut holding a cardboard sign that reads, "There is no backup space" 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

An unexpected frontier is facing calls for new environmental regulations and cleanup: outer space.

Why it matters: Space junk clutters up orbits and poses an urgent threat to weather, security, communications and other satellites. Long-term, you can’t live or work in space if trash is literally slamming into you.

“If [space] is just a place that you put things that provide a service to you and beyond that, it doesn’t mean anything to you, you kind of hit a wall, and you’re limited in terms of 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 more common as debris builds up in space.

  • While there are recommendations in place to help govern when and how satellites are de-orbited once their operational lives are over, it's not enough, according to experts.
  • Rocket Lab's CEO Peter Beck told CNN his company is already having trouble finding safe ways to launch its customers' satellites in part because of the huge number of spacecraft and junk already in orbit.
  • A new report on space junk from the European Space Agency last week found the disposal of defunct spacecraft in orbit is getting better, but it is happening at a slower pace than needed.

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 down to Earth.

  • "Orbital debris is not climate change, but the ecosystem requires an environmental protection," Jah told me. "Whatever narratives we have for maritime, land and air, these environmental protection narratives need to have, 'and space.'"

One big question: Where is all the space junk?

  • The U.S. military tracks about 25,000 objects in orbit, but there are millions of other, smaller pieces of junk that could still threaten spacecraft and people.
  • Scientists also aren't sure exactly where any piece of space debris is at any given time, complicating efforts to clean up orbit.
  • Quantifying the space junk problem will allow more effective “naming and shaming" of the worst polluters in orbit, a tactic that 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 in order to make tracking more effective.

  • Jah is also trying to quantify the "carrying capacity" of certain orbits in order to know exactly how many satellites can and should launch to various parts of space at any time, potentially allowing that to govern when and if certain constellations can launch.
  • He and others are also calling for better international collaboration on the space junk problem, with the U.S. lagging behind others like Europe in addressing the issue in innovative ways.
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