Look up! Above your head, space junk hurtles around Earth at a mind-boggling speed of 22,000 MPH. It’s hard to believe that since humanity first ventured into space in 1957, we have already managed to pollute the orbital environment to such a significant extent. This debris poses a serious threat as it can stay in orbit for a few decades or all the way up to a thousand years. It’s all on a collision course with other space debris, operational satellites, and even our lone humans in space.
In this article, we’ll explore the importance of satellites in our modern world, the issue of space debris, and how this problem is intimately connected to the climate crisis. We’ll also delve into potential solutions that can help mitigate this problem for the sake of future generations.
The Crucial Role of Satellites
Satellites have revolutionized our world, playing a pivotal role in the post-World War II age of globalization and enabling countless technologies and services we rely on daily. From GPS navigation and weather forecasting to communication, entertainment, national security, and climate monitoring, satellites are an indispensable part of our critical infrastructure, elevating our standard of living in numerous ways.
Additionally, satellites provide invaluable geospatial data that helps us map, plan, and monitor our land and built environments. As Jack Rusk, Director of Climate Strategy at EHDD, points out, “Data from satellites tells us not only about climate risks to buildings but also about the supply chains where materials come from.” Clearly, satellites are the ultimate tools for monitoring and protecting our world.
The Looming Threat of Space Debris
Our current issue arises from the unsustainable use of Earth’s orbits. Things have been launched into space for decades with no consideration of pollution. This part of the learning process was acceptable during the nascent age of spaceflight, but I think it’s safe to say we’re well beyond that level of innocence now. It’s time for some accountability.
Collisions between space debris create a snowball effect, generating more debris that can render our orbits completely unusable over time. NASA has been aware of this issue for decades and has termed this domino effect as the “Kessler Syndrome.” If we continue to add objects to orbit without proper management, it would take merely 200 years for our orbits to become hazardous and impractical for satellite operations. Our only continuous human presence in space, the International Space Station, has needed to take evasive maneuvers dozens of times over the last few decades.
Monitoring Debris Threats
Thankfully, organizations like NASA have dedicated scientists responsible for monitoring orbital debris threats to satellites and launches. Ruby Patterson, a Mars Geochemist at NASA Johnson Space Center, highlights the importance of recognizing orbital debris as a significant component of the space industry. Ruby shares,
“If our orbits become unsustainable and the function of our satellite-dependent society is hindered, I have no doubts action will be taken to clear the debris to enable satellite function. Too many businesses, government operations, and everyday functions are dependent on it.”
Ruby goes on to note that it’s important to distinguish that, “not all satellites orbit at the same elevation above Earth. Just like not all orbital debris is entrained at the same elevation above Earth.” In fact, Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) is where the bulk of commercial and governmental satellite activity takes place. Subsequently, it is the orbit with the worst amount of orbital debris. Satellites much further out in Geostationary Orbit (GEO)are locked into position above a fixed point on Earth, where they will stay for the duration of their lifecycle. GEO is less crowded because the orbit is much larger than that of one close to Earth, so there is less of a threat to satellites in GEO as compared to LEO.
Potential Regime Solutions: Mitigation and Remediation
Addressing the issue of space debris requires a two-step approach. The first prong involves mitigation, which entails refraining from launching satellites without proper de-orbiting technology, i.e., don’t send them up if they can’t be brought back down. An international agreement, similar to the existing Outer Space Treaty, Antarctica Treaty, or the existing aviation and open sea regulations, would be necessary to ensure all spacefaring nations comply.
The mitigation aspect of such an agreement would be the easiest to enforce out of both steps in this approach, but it would be no small feat. Mitigation would entail reigning in the ballooning commercial space industry with strict regulation and standardization, as well as bridging the gap between the traditional spacefaring nations and the emerging ones.
The second step, remediation, is more advanced and involves actively clearing debris from orbit using innovative and novel satellite technologies. It will require much trust and experimentation in the international community. Why? Because this approach must be carefully managed to prevent any potential weaponization of remediation technology.
Potential remediation technology could be built and operated by commercial contractors, national space agencies, or an international organization that oversees it all. I don’t mind who cleans up our junk. As long as we’re in agreement about it and it starts sooner rather than later.
Both steps might be expedited by incorporating them into the existing global framework, like the fight against climate change, rather than trying to build a new regime from scratch.
Integrating Space Debris into the Climate Crisis
My main concern is that this issue does not receive adequate attention on its own. The consequence of orbital debris has yet to be fully felt here on Earth. Like any time-sensitive issue, it’s best to bring awareness to as many groups and people as possible.
Moving forward, integrating space debris policy into a larger issue matter like climate change could help bring more resources and solutions to the issue. Reliable satellites are vital in the fight against climate change and help facilitate a truly global effort to monitor sea levels, temperatures, ice melting, forest fires, extreme weather events, droughts, and human and animal migration patterns.
Ruby Patterson once again highlights some active ways satellite data is being used to monitor the climate crisis in the scientific community,
“There are many types of scientists who employ the use of satellite data in their research to assess the climate crisis (e.g., atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, geologists, anthropologists). These scientists use image data from a satellite that has special sensors which can detect, and in some cases actively deploy, certain types of electromagnetic energy to the Earth from space.”
The scientific community is very much a global community constantly looking to overcome the limits of national boundaries. Policy-wise, the next step moving forward must be to establish a formal regime on orbital debris. In this sense, the word “regime” isn’t something to be afraid of. Rather, it’s an idea borrowed from international relations that international institutions create a “norm,” a set of rules, and expectations that national governments will follow. At the moment, there is no formal orbital debris regime that is effective enough to sway the actions of all the spacefaring nations.
Instead, it may be beneficial to frame the orbital debris regime under the wider umbrella of climate change. Getting orbital debris on the international agenda would be a lot easier if it’s linked to the fight against climate change, rather than it being a standalone issue. The European Space Agency outlined a few ways space can help support the COP26 climate agreements made in Glasgow in 2021, but the issue was never a true agenda item at any of these large, intergovernmental climate conferences and agreements. This will need to change soon.
The orbital debris issue is undeniably one of the lesser-discussed aspects of the climate crisis, yet it holds tangible solutions that can be implemented with international cooperation. To secure a sustainable future for generations to come, we must act now and work together to address this critical problem, ensuring the reliability and effectiveness of our satellite-dependent solutions in the face of global challenges like climate change.