As a civilization, we are unfortunately all too familiar with the abundance of waste and trash. Landfills dot the Earth and can be as large as the 2,200-acre Apex landfill in Las Vegas or the 15-story high Bantar Gebang trash mountain in Jakarta, Indonesia. News stories and activists have alerted us to the omnipresence of micro-plastics in all places on Earth—not even Antarctica or the depths of the ocean have been spared. But did you know that the largest volume of trash orbits the Earth 18,642 miles above us?
Space junk not only encircles the Earth in low-Earth orbit (approximately 99 to 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface), but it also spreads out into geostationary orbit (about 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface). The collection of space junk has been growing since we first arrived in space during the 1950s. Currently, the interstellar landfill is comprised of 3,000 dead satellites and more than 34,000 pieces of debris that total more than 15 million pounds.
Thrown into the mix are more than 2,200 active satellites that keep us going on a daily basis. They provide internet, television, GPS data, and weather information. Rockets launched from Earth must navigate through the orbital field of space junk and avoid the largest pieces of space debris that travel at speeds nearing 7,000 mph on a potential collision course of disaster. The International Space Station is in the danger zone as well and has conducted dozens of evasive maneuvers over the years to avoid collisions with space junk in orbit.
What is sustainability in space?
Just as we are working toward a more sustainable Earth, we need to work toward a more sustainable space. This is done through diplomacy and cooperation with other countries—not only to reduce the amount of space junk we leave behind, but also by recovering and properly disposing of the space junk currently in orbit.
It is joining forces to ensure space exploration can continue and that all efforts are made to protect space from unnecessary debris, destruction, and international conflict.
The Stakes Are High
In 1978, former NASA scientist David Kessler penned a research paper that warned of a cascade of space junk that became known as the Kessler Syndrome. It foretold of the dangers of continuing to leave defunct satellites, discarded rocket boosters, spacecraft the size of elephants, and other bits of debris including paint flecks from space shuttles in orbit around the Earth.
The theory behind the research is that as the amount of space junk grows, so does the likelihood that orbiting debris will collide with each other, creating additional debris.
The exponentially growing amount of space debris in orbit would lead to unimaginable amounts of space junk being ejected from orbit to destinations unknown. A large amount would also rain down on the Earth. Other pieces could strike the moon or render active satellites worthless, crashing banking systems and grinding air travel to a halt.
Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario projected by Kessler has already started to play out. In May of 2021 a piece of space junk threatened to strike the Earth over an area that spanned nearly the entire US, Africa, Brazil, Australia, India, and the oceans in between. Thankfully, it crashed into the Indian Ocean.
Then, in March of 2022, news outlets reported that a large piece of space junk (originally believed to be from a Space X rocket, but later determined to originate from an international rocket launched in 2014) crashed into the dark side of the moon. This is a side rarely seen, even by satellites—but is visible on the MOVA Moon Globe (pictured above). While damage is likely limited to the formation of a new crater, it puts future lunar landings and colonization efforts at risk.
This growing field of space junk also threatens the future of space travel itself. If the field becomes too congested, it will be too hazardous to safely navigate and space exploration could come to an end.
World Space Week Offers Insight into the Future of a Sustainable Space
In 1999, the United National General Assembly created World Space Week (WSW). It is an international celebration of space held annually from October 4th to 10th. The dates commemorate the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1974, and the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies which was signed on October 10, in 1967.
WSW features a collection of educational and outreach efforts around the globe with a focus on one key issue this year; space sustainability. WSW sees sustainability in space as it “relates to how humanity uses space, most pressingly, the orbital area surrounding Earth – itself a finite resource.”
WSW’s efforts delve into methods for cleaning up the space junk in orbit (through an international collaboration), and into ways to increase sustainable efforts in future space exploration.
Current Efforts to Clean Up Space Junk
Scientific American noted in an article that, “Kessler’s nightmare scenario has yielded no shortage of possible debris-flushing fixes: nets, laser blasts, harpoons, giant foam balls, puffs of air, tethers and solar sails—as well as garbage-gathering robotic arms and tentacles.”
Yet nothing has proven capable of the vast task at hand.
There is no easy fix. Space debris comes in all shapes and sizes. It orbits the Earth at a fast clip, and there is a constant threat of being struck by other space junk while trying to clean up part of the mess. Add to that the very real concern that any technology capable of successfully removing space junk would also be successful as antisatellite warfare.
So, clean-up becomes an international negotiation and cooperation situation where it is likely best to remember early life lessons and hum along to your favorite preschool song about working together and cleaning up.
Why Space Matters
Space is not limited by dreams. Space is our past and our future. Preserving it and exploring it sustainably will ensure it is there for us and for future generations.
John F. Kennedy said it best, “For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”