The True Gravity of Our Space Debris Situation by Liam O’Leary

Liam O’Leary examines the environmental impact of humanities pursuits in space. 

Although it may not seem like it, our lives are heavily dependent on space technology. In an increasingly global and technological world, space technologies are pivotal to our society now more than ever, not just for use in everyday situations but also for national security and disaster aid, on top of a myriad of new business opportunities. Satellites form the basis for long distance telecommunication and meteorological forecasting, providing data on atmospheric pollutants key to addressing climate change, and form global positioning systems useful for creating maps. But with satellites comes space debris, i.e. leftover man-made junk from defunct missions and collisions. Currently, about 34,000 objects larger than 10 centimetres are hurtling around Earth faster than a bullet at over 28,900 km/h.

Although space technology has taken giant leaps in recent years with flagship European research programmes placing focus on an increase in space exploration, research, and investment; debris is only further accumulating. The concern arises that if the industry is not made globally sustainable soon then satellites may not be able to survive. This could result in the loss of most of our infrastructure in space, impacting hundreds of industries and modern-day society as a whole. Our own European space economy has proved to be a very important part of the overall EU, employing approximately 230,000 people and having an estimated value between €46-54 billion. Further international regulation on sustainable satellite orbits, space demilitarisation, and research into possible futuristic space debris cleaning and removal tools (or as I like to call them ‘vacuum cleaners’) are just a couple proposed solutions to manage and curb space debris accumulation, promote the sustainable utilisation of space, and avoid catastrophic collisions.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Military tensions in space are growing with the development of Anti-Satellite Missiles by the United States, Russia, China, and India, especially given recent missile and ground laser tests in India. The idea of utilising space for celestial conflict is nothing new, currently, the United Nations Outer Space Treaty does not ban military activities or the weaponisation of space (with the exception of weapons of mass destruction). But with more recent developments such as the U.S’s establishment of the United States Space Force (USSF), which aims to mature its military doctrine for space power, space is becoming further and further militarised. If a space arms race can’t be prevented, there could be a total disruption of the agreed law that outer space is the common heritage of all humankind with a potential space-faring war spelling disastrous consequences. Given how there are already 6000 satellites orbiting Earth with the possibility of that number growing to 57,000 in the next ten years, any satellite destruction could cause a severe increase in space debris and potentially render space unusable for the foreseeable future. 

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Due to unclear regulations, it’s not well-known how space treaties apply to private companies with the Outer Space Treaty vaguely stipulating that national governments are responsible for regulating their actions. This leads to an uneven regulation of private companies as governments are incentivised to be lenient to advance their own global soft power. Additionally, thanks to the development of commercial launch systems, the cost of accessing space has substantially reduced. Space is becoming increasingly crowded as a result with both new countries, such as Australia, and private actors, such as SpaceX entering the ever-more diversifying arena. SpaceX’s StarLink programme alone plans for 42,000 new satellites. Competition and commercialisation of space activities are swiftly increasing with major technological shifts disrupting traditional industrial and business models. With this in mind and considering the increased risk of collision with more satellites in orbit as well as the potential issues caused to astronomers with bright satellites obstructing views of our cosmos; how can we best coordinate so as to spur economic growth, new technological developments, and innovation within the space sector? Ultimately the question now arises, is there enough space for everyone?