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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.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Nov 24, 2020 - Science

Inside a mission to send private astronauts to the space station

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Gregg Newton/Getty Images

If all goes according to plan, in about a year, former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría will board a SpaceX capsule and command a flight to orbit with three other private astronauts.

The big picture: The mission — flown by the company Axiom Space — will mark a major test of NASA's plans to open up commercial access to the space station in the name of creating a thriving private market in low-Earth orbit.

2 hours ago - Podcasts

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes on the Senate runoffs

The future of U.S. politics, and all that flows from it, is in the hands of Georgia voters when they vote in two Senate runoffs on January 5.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the election dynamics with former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who served between 1999 and 2003.

2 hours ago - Health

Cuomo orders emergency hospital protocols as COVID capacity dwindles

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that struggling state hospital systems must transfer patients to sites that are not nearing capacity, as rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations strain medical resources.

Why it matters: New York does not expect to get the same kind of help from thousands of out-of-state doctors and nurses that it got this spring, Cuomo acknowledged, as most of the country battles skyrocketing COVID hospitalizations and infections.