It is a depressing fact that humans have managed to pollute not only every corner of the Earth, but beyond Earth. According to NASA, over half a million pieces of our debris can be found orbiting around the planet. This phenomenon is referred to as “space junk” or orbital debris/pollution and it comes from fragmentation or abandonment of any man-made structure like spacecraft or launch vehicles (Garcia). When functioning satellites, for example, are struck by debris, the damage can create even more particles of orbital pollution thus worsening the problem. This is commonly known as the Kessler syndrome (Jacobs). More debris means more chances of collision. This is especially concerning to the International Space Station and other space craft with people aboard.
The image above shows the positions of the currently trackable pieces of debris. Some debris is so small that it cannot be tracked at all, making it even more dangerous. NASA has guidelines in place to avoid collisions with trackable debris, but they obviously cannot maneuver away from debris they cannot detect.
NASA is actually surprised that with such great quantities of debris there has not been as many overwhelming threats of collision as they would assume. But this should not be taken lightly, as the 4,000 satellites we depend on everyday are at risk as well as the astronauts we send up there (Davey). So how do we possibly get rid of pollution in space? Dr. Jason Held of Saber Astronautics is working on what is essentially a sling shot for space debris. It is a conductive string attached to an operative spacecraft that simply pushes the junk towards Earth in order for it to burn up in the atmosphere, effectively destroying it (Davey). This product, the DragEN, is currently being tested and seems promising but it will be a few years until it can even be implemented if successful.
Just like the Environmental Protection Agency on Earth, many scientists affiliated with space are urging for this same type of organization to be made for the health of space. The United Nations did create guidelines for space mitigation; all spacecraft sent into space must be removed in 25 years. But this is not enforced by law, not to mention there is no such thing as space police, but this is a valiant effort in the right direction. The problem is that every country does not agree upon what is and is not an anti-satellite weapon.
Unfortunately, this orbital pollution is also impacting (literally) and endangering us. There are numerous objects and debris found on Earth from space that did not fully burn up in reentry of the atmosphere. Although, thankfully no one has been recorded dying or being injured by artificial orbital pollution yet (Jacobs). All satellites and craft eventually (decades and decades) will fall out of orbit on their own naturally. So, is deliberately pushing all this debris into Earth safe? No one knows for sure, and in this situation, we must analyze the costs and the benefits. If the net benefit of cleaning up the pollution in such a fashion outweighs the cost of endangering Earth inhabitants, then it will most likely be implemented.
Another possible solution are lasers. Simply directing or eliminating debris using a single laser beam from Earth or the ISS. Japanese and Australian researchers, among others, have been developing these lasers. It is still many years off in the future, and if it does not eliminate the debris it still poses the threat of not burning up during reentry.
In addition to the solid debris, there is liquid orbital pollution too. Fortunately, in much smaller amounts, but it comes from the rockets themselves because we dump rocket propellant into the upper and middle stratosphere (Rastogi). This rocket fuel causes immediate damage because it is just like how car exhaust is bad for the atmosphere. The fuel depletes ozone at alarming rates which is thinning our ozone layer even more. Rockets are simply a syringe of poison that we are injecting straight into our bloodstream, which is the atmosphere. This problem seems much easier to solve since we just need the rockets to internalize this pollution, for example, via a separate waste storage tank.
The theme of pollution, on Earth and in space, is that it follows the first law of thermodynamics: energy cannot be created nor destroyed. This is why it is so crucial for us humans to be mindful of what we put out. Because at some point, despite who does the polluting and where, we all collectively pay the price for it.
By Olivia Cobleigh
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Garcia, Mark. “Space Debris and Human Spacecraft.” nasa.gov. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 4 August, 2017. Web. 9 October, 2017.
Jacobs, Suzanne. “Scientists may have found a solution for space pollution.” grist.org. Grist Magazine, Inc, 21 May, 2015. Web. 10 October, 2017.
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Rastogi, Nina. “Dirty Rockets.” slate.com. The Slate Group LLC., 17 November, 2009. Web. 12 October, 2017.
“Space Pollution.” pollutionissues.com. Advameg, Inc. Web. 10 October, 2017.