Space: the last frontier (of pollution)

By | May 10, 2023

Thirty-three years have passed since Lena Platonos released Mi mou tos cyklos tarate, an album that included the song Skoupidia peran da ambient. She spoke of “garbage that experienced scientists threw out of the atmosphere” and “formed the new constellation of garbage.” But also about “amorphous masses of new constellations, collectors of space rocks and crystallized astronaut urine.”

The truth about space debris, with a great poetic leap, could indeed be described in Plato’s words. In space, among other things, a thermal rescue blanket, a glove, a wrench, a pair of pliers, a tool bag, a camera, a toothbrush and… garbage bags have “gone”. However, apart from the frightening fact that where man passes he leaves something behind, when we talk about space junk, debris or fragments (space debris) generated by man, we mainly mean those that are in orbit around the Earth and they have arise from the launch of artificial satellites.

January 1986: During the STS-61-C mission of the space shuttle Columbia, a triangular-shaped piece of space debris was recorded in orbit. © Getty Images / Ideal Image

Who throws garbage into space?

Space junk started accumulating in orbit around Earth shortly after the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957. But even before that, humans may have produced space junk, e.g. via the Pascal B nuclear test, in August 1957. Manolis Mylonakis, Space Systems Scientist at the Hellenic Space Center (ELKED), characteristically tells us: “The accumulation of space debris is a consequence of our presence in space, which in an overwhelming percentage has to do with putting satellites into orbit. Until recently, every time we launched a satellite, part of the rocket remained in orbit and became debris itself. Also, there was no procedure to shoot down or deposit the satellite in what we call a “graveyard orbit”, with the result that the satellite itself at the end of its life became a piece of debris”. Since clarification is probably needed here, we should mention that the “graveyard orbit” is, spatially, beyond the orbits of space operations. Now, there is a directive for satellites to move into such orbits at the end of their “mission”, both to reduce the chance of them colliding with spacecraft (and not only that: the International Space Station has maneuvered several times to avoid a potential fatal collision with some space debris), as well as to prevent the creation of more space debris.

Mr. Mylonakis continues: “The phenomenon is intensified when debris collides at speeds in excess of 40,000 kilometers per hour and breaks into even smaller pieces, increasing the risk of subsequent collisions.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), in the last sixty years of space presence there have been more than 6,000 launches, which has resulted in the creation of more than 9,000 tons of space debris. In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal reports that, according to EOD estimates, there are now more than 130 million pieces of debris in space. Of these, approximately 36,500 are longer than four inches and one million are between one and four inches. The rest, the vast majority, are less than one centimeter in diameter. What does it consist on? They can be anything from tiny fragments of spacecraft left over after collisions to tiny flakes of paint. Despite their size, they travel around Earth at greater than the speed of a bullet, making them dangerous for causing significant damage to other orbiting ships or objects and, by extension, creating more space junk.

“Another aspect of the problem is the weapons tests against satellites that some countries are conducting in space,” Mylonakis will add. “Just one such Chinese missile test has been estimated to have increased the total amount of debris particles by 25%, making UN pressure to find a diplomatic solution imperative.” This pressure is needed as the problem has intensified: “Thousands of broadband internet satellites (eg Starlink, OneWeb) have been put into orbit in the last five years, creating a peculiar ‘network backlog’. space traffic’ and at the same time the risk of collisions and destruction of an operational satellite has increased”, as the ELKED expert scientist points out. In fact, despite efforts to reduce the relative risk, conflicts have already occurred. For For example, on March 28, 2006, the Russian communications satellite “Express-AM11” was hit by an unknown object and rendered inoperable.

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Photo taken by the Mars Perseverance rover on July 12, 2022, showing debris from its landing gear on Mars. © NASA / JPL-Caltech / AFP /

What do we care?

The hazards, then, lie primarily in space, while most “downtrending” space debris burns up in the atmosphere before reaching Earth. However, some larger ones may fall to Earth intact, such as the “David Bowie alien” in the 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth. And according to NASA, for the last fifty years, on average, a piece of debris of this type has fallen to Earth every day, without significant material damage. One might reasonably ask, “Since this is the way things are, why do we care what happens in space?” For starters, there is an ethical issue associated with treating space as an “environmental sacrifice zone.” But there are more “practical” negative consequences of space debris for us here on Earth.

Mr. Mylonakis explains: “An uncontrolled increase in space debris can lead to the so-called Kessler Syndrome, that is, a generalized chain collision of debris and satellites, resulting in the practical disuse of some orbits and the eventual general difficulty of humanity’s access to space Such a scenario, while far-fetched, would have many and significant implications for our life on Earth The space economy, in addition to the everyday services we all know and enjoy (GPS and Galileo services, Internet and satellite TV, weather services, etc.), is a booming sector.For example, in Greece alone there are more than fifty companies and research organizations active in this field, including many start-ups with increasing turnover and large number of research activities.

But are we all, as a human species, united to address the problem arising from the growth of space junk?
Are we together in implementing a zero waste policy in space? Ought. Space debris is a global problem affecting both space and non-space nations. In fact, in 2007 the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) published a series of guidelines for the development of standards that would reduce space debris. However, so far there is no binding international treaty to minimize space debris. And this despite the fact that there have been other similar initiatives at the national level. For example, as early as 1979, NASA had begun to investigate, through an Orbital Debris Program, measures that would lead to the reduction of space debris in orbit around the Earth.

Joseph Asbacher, ESA’s director general, told the World Economic Forum in Davos in January: “We want to put a zero-waste policy in place, which means if you put a spacecraft into orbit, you have to take it back.” He then added that the orbits must be protected “for our own safety and the safety of the spacecraft and astronauts.” Mr. Mylonakis, regarding the push to implement a mandatory and internationally valid “zero waste” policy in space, notes: “In the European Union and the US, some rules have been put in place for the handling of space debris. For example, a satellite must now be destroyed in the atmosphere or enter a “graveyard orbit” no later than five years after the end of its work. Despite all this, and although the discussion has been opened on the conclusion of a new treaty on outer space, there is still no international commitment for its management”.

Sent for “cleaning”

Lena Platonos wondered at the end of her song about “the fate of those children who were born and will be born under the constellation of garbage, under the magnetism of garbage.” Let’s not lose hope. The space in the future can be clean. The foundations are already laid. For example, in 2026 the ClearSpace-1 mission, designed by EOD and prepared by the Swiss start-up Clearspace SA, is expected to take place. Its purpose is to remove from Earth orbit an abandoned part of a rocket that was launched in 2013. Its weight is 112 kg. Compared to 9,000 tons of space debris, it seems small. It is important, however, to do the beginning.

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