Space junk: the next green frontier

First it was about preventing trash from ending up in landfills, more recently it has been about tackling the waste in our oceans. Now, efforts are underway to stop space debris from orbiting our planet. John Dyer reports.

Image credit: European Space Agency via Flickr

Experts criticized India for testing an anti-satellite missile in space last month. The weapon blew apart an Indian satellite, creating a field of debris that could jeopardize the International Space Station floating more than 400 kilometers above the Earth.

“Intentionally creating orbital debris fields is not compatible with human space flight,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a public meeting in Washington, DC.

Bridenstine said NASA has tracked around 60 pieces of space debris more than 10 centimeters wide. For a 10-day period, the station was more vulnerable, but the danger passed without incident.

Over 20,000 pieces of space debris

But India is not unique in adding to the junk floating around the planet. More than 20,000 pieces of old spacecraft, satellites and other items are hovering in the heavens.

Now the World Economic Forum has tapped researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, the European Space Agency, the University of Texas and Bryce Space and Technology, a Virginia-based company, to  launch the Space Sustainability Rating to help reduce damaging space pollution.

The efforts aims to encourage “more responsible behavior among countries and companies participating in space” and “advance justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space,” according to a press release.

A key goal in the effort encourage countries like India to advance science and develop new innovative space technologies while not putting more trash into orbit.

“One element of justice is ensuring that every country has the opportunity to participate in using space technology as a form of infrastructure to provide vital services in our society such as communication, navigation, and environmental monitoring,” said Danielle Wood, a MediaLab professor who specializes in education and aeronautics.

Meteorologists, GPS for cars, planes and other transportation systems need satellites to work properly, Wood added. Many people in the developing world, moreover, need greater access to those systems to advance their economies.

Space debris poses a threat to satellites

“Our global economy depends on our ability to operate satellites safely in order to fly in planes, prepare for severe weather, broadcast television and study our changing climate,” Wood said. “To continue using satellites in orbit around Earth for years to come, we need to ensure that the environment around Earth is as free as possible from trash leftover from previous missions.”

Space Sustainability Rating, for example, will encourage developers to construct and launch satellites in a manner that is less likely to add to the debris around the planet. Currently, many satellites burn out as they descend back to Earth. But satellites in high orbits can take much longer to fall, potentially hitting other operating satellites or spacecraft as their orbits decay.

“The Space Sustainability Rating will create an incentive for companies and governments operating satellites to take all the steps they can to reduce the creation of space debris,” Wood said. “This will create a more equitable opportunity for new countries to participate in space with less risk of collision with older satellites.”

The rating system will also encourage corporations and governments to share information about their satellites so regulators can compile data about potential space junk amounts.

“Together with our collaborators, we aim to put in place a system that has the flexibility to stimulate and drive innovative sustainable design solutions and spotlight those missions that contribute positively to the space environment,” said Stijn Lemmens, senior space debris mitigation analyst at the European Space Agency.

The U.S. government has been pursuing related goals.

Last year, American officials announced that the U.S. Department of Commerce will make space safety data and services public while the Pentagon will continue to sell its satellite tracking data to private companies. Officials are also updating the US’s Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices and drafting new guidelines for satellites to cut down on space junk.

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