The Ticking Time Bomb of Space Debris…

Group 7

From the moment Sputnik 1 was catapulted into space, a layer of debris has been slowly accumulating on low Earth orbit. Millions of fragments from past missions, retired satellites and military tests are flying at speeds of up to 30,000 km/hr above our heads. These range from the size of a sand particle up to the size of car. This layer of junk is a floating time bomb. A small fragment could collide with a larger structure breaking it into many small fragments which then have the potential to destroy other satellites. In the worst-case scenario, the chain reaction could lead to an uninhabitable environment for space technology and potentially imprison us on Earth for centuries. This problem could affect everybody currently on Earth as well as future generations for centuries to come.  Is it possible to balance the needs of our daily lives with the protection of a sustainable space environment?

Space debris is rapidly approaching a critical level. Should space missions be halted?

The World’s population depends on satellites for enabling phone calls, GPS, television, weather forecasts, large scale farming, asteroid tracking and space discoveries. With a growing population and as developing economies modernise, it is essential for the space-infrastructure capacity to increase with demand. Without continued maintenance, support and new systems our modern world could grind to an abrupt halt.

Consider the devastating effect the loss of weather satellites could have on the population. Our ability to predict both the formation and path of hurricanes allows countless lives to be saved each year by providing an opportunity for people to evacuate from danger zones. Scientific discoveries would also be severely hindered if space telescopes were not in service, they have allowed us to understand the age of the universe, monitor climate change, witness the birth and death of stars and further the understanding of the human race in ways previously unimagined. Additionally, experiments in space are necessary since a sustainable zero-gravity environment is impossible to simulate on Earth.

In 2016, the United Nations released a resolution declaring internet access to be a human right for prospering in the 21st century [1]. Due to the high costs of setting up and maintaining cable broadband, especially for large areas, satellite internet is an attractive option. Companies such as SpaceX and Samsung already have plans to implement such technology [2]. Surely it is wrong to deny those in developing countries the access to affordable internet, something that forms such a vital part of life in the developed world.

Although the maintenance and operation of current infrastructure is crucial, the space-debris problem is rapidly approaching a critical level. It is estimated that the amount of junk in orbit is expected to grow tenfold in the next decade if current trends continue [3]. Space junk has the potential to cause catastrophic damage to orbiting infrastructure and could put an end to the idea of ever colonising other planets. With Earth surrounded by a cloud of rapidly moving fragments, best illustrated in Figure 1, it would be far too dangerous to attempt to launch a spacecraft.

Figure1: Proposed Space-Debris Formation (University of Southamption)

Therefore, it is essential that the problem is tackled before a disastrous chain reaction occurs. In order to achieve this, the number of experiments taking place in space and the number of satellites being launched must be reduced until the situation becomes clearer or a solution presents itself. In 2007, one Chinese anti-satellite military test is estimated to have increased the amount of space debris by 25% [3]. Such tests and experiments should not be allowed to continue given that they knowingly create more space junk.

It would be unreasonable to cease all new development in space, what is needed is the introduction of legislation and the requirement that any new satellite or rocket launch would have to show a high-level of tangible benefit. We must consider future generations, it is deeply unethical to continue activity that we know will trap the human race on Earth before we even have the ability to leave. Therefore, it is imperative that the number of objects being sent into orbit is vastly reduced before the ‘space highway’ to other planets becomes irreversibly blocked.

Is active debris-removal technology enough to tackle the problem?

The expansion and development of new space infrastructure can be justified since technologies are becoming available to help reduce the amount of debris in orbit. One of the major areas of development is in harpoon or net technology which has the aim of capturing the larger pieces of space junk and bringing them back to atmosphere where they burn up. This technique has already been tested in space by the RemoveDebris project and progress is promising. Another potential solution is using electromagnets to ‘push’ the debris into a safer orbit. The final field of technology being seen as a possible solution is lasers or plasma ‘guns’ which melt the debris to change its mass, guiding it into a safer orbit or destroying it entirely. These technologies, provided enough investment, will allow us to continue using space infrastructure whilst also creating a sustainable space environment.

Unfortunately, most of the technology proposed is unproven for large scale use and despite working in concept, could actually add to the crisis. As debris is travelling at over 8 km/s, it would be extremely difficult to consistently capture fragments with a net. Moreover, if the device collides with other junk it could actually break up and become debris itself. Electromagnetic devices are also unreliable because they cannot target objects exclusively, the magnetic field will influence everything around the device. Therefore, to alter the debris orbit, there cannot be other space instruments around the device, constraining the window within which this task can take place. Laser and plasma guns may only succeed in breaking off parts of the debris instead of melting them, creating additional fragments. Also, due to the inhomogeneous nature of the junk, it is unlikely that laser and plasma guns will be able to burn off the required amount of material to change the debris’ orbit safely. Therefore, the proposed technologies cannot be trusted to solve the space debris problem on their own. It would also be extremely unfair to place the burden of solving this worldwide issue solely on those developing the technology.

Initial Decision

Reduce the number of launches until problem is better understood and solutions are proposed.

References

1. Szoszkiewicz, Lukas. 2018. “Is The Right To Access The Internet A New Human Right?”. Sravnitel’noe Konstitucionnoe Obozrenie 119 (4). doi:10.21128/1812-7126-2017-4-109-123.

2. Brodkin, Jon. 2019. “FCC Tells Spacex It Can Deploy Up To 11,943 Broadband Satellites”. Ars Technica. https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2018/11/spacex-gets-fcc-approval-for-7500-more-broadband-satellites/.#

3. David, Leonard. 2019. “Ugly Truth Of Space Junk: Orbital Debris Problem To Triple By 2030”. Space.Com. https://www.space.com/11607-space-junk-rising-orbital-debris-levels-2030.html.

22 thoughts on “The Ticking Time Bomb of Space Debris…

  1. A unique and fascinating topic. You need to expand the ethical arguments and refine your question though.

    What is your core issue? Is it do we limit satellite launches? Or is how do we clear up space junk?

    In terms of ethical arguments try to answer questions such as “From a utilitarianism point of view, is limiting satellite launches supported?”

  2. This was a thoroughly engaging article on an interesting topic. I had no idea of the magnitude of space debris and it’s effects.

    I agree with the initial decision of halting space launches, the consequences of building up this debris would be too catastrophic if ignored for too long – despite the problems that halting launches could have. However the technology problem could be an issue in the face of this.

  3. Very interesting article. I agree that space launches should be halted before the problem becomes irreversible. This is despite the fact that it could mean we are no longer able to use technology we have become used to

  4. I agree that this is an important issue, so any space launches with the risk of adding to the space debris issue should be carefully considered – as mentioned in the article, it would be unethical towards developing nations to outright ban any launches until a solution to the problem becomes clear. However, launches should certainly be minimized until the developed countries who have caused the issue have found their solution.

  5. Fascinating article detailing significant ethical dilemmas.I agree some form of limitation of space launches is indicated .Collaboration between relevant developed nations is needed to deal with space junk as a matter of urgency

  6. A very well considered an important ethical dilemma
    Our society is very dependent on our satellites and the loss of them could be devastating to human advancement and indeed life as we know it

    Things to consider
    How much would we need to reduce launches by to have any meaningful impact

  7. I had not realised that our actions today could have such far reaching consequences for future generations. The every day benefits of satellite technology are clear to us all, but how would our children and grandchildren judge us if even more useful new technologies, that could help mankind, could not be developed because of our ignorance today? This is a fascinating article that has made me think. We need action now!

  8. Great article that has made me think about the challenges we will face if we carry on as we are. We need to all work together the secure future generations ability to access space.

  9. The points raised from this article are very frightening, combine that with that the need for a modern life and there is a real conundrum. How we balance the needs of today with the possibility of real damage in the future. It also highlights the difficulty of choosing whether we help the developing world, at the potential detriment of future generations, or whether we protect this space environment for future generations at the consequences of harming developing countries.

  10. A thought provoking article, which highlights again mankind’s impact on the larger environment. We have polluted our oceans with plastic , our atmosphere with dangerous gases and particulates and even the space around our planet with debris from satellites and rockets. The great benefits that we all derive from space technology are apparent to all, but future advancements could be halted by the build up of space junk. I fear this issue will be highlighted and many platitudes will be said ,but ultimately no course of action will be decided upon until it is too late.

  11. Interesting article. Is there any chance that some information could be found on what is a sustainable number of new space launches per year? Maybe the new launches do not even need to be halted that significantly.

  12. Your article brings to our attention another looming man made environmental crisis that is out of sight but nevertheless, critical. This is a well researched piece that draws on current expertise and offers a broad overview of potential solutions and their efficacy. Could you develop a tighter focus on the question you are asking, considering more clearly the ethics surrounding potential solutions and identify a likely timeframe in which this could /should take effect.

  13. Engaging, interesting and thought provoking. The article raises both physical and moral dilemmas. The exploitation of space means benefits for some although costs for all. Clearly whilst recapture is a possibility the question of who pays for this will grow. Perhaps stopping launches for a time, especially given the environmental cost would be timely.

  14. A very interesting article that leaves us all with a lot to think about. This article certainly opened my eyes to the problems of space debris. It has made clear to us that we need to stop thoughtlessly launching items into space without thinking of the consequences as well as illuminating that we need to do more to stop the “ticking time bomb of space debris” from negatively impacting on us and the environment we live in.

  15. What a very informative and interesting article. The thought that space exploration could be impossible and that we will have difficulties with satellite technology in the near future is alarming. The likely increase in launches by developing countries and private profit-making companies make it imperative that controls should be put in place. From a worldwide prospective the United Nations Organisation could be best placed to solve this dilemma by using a licensing system that all nations can agree to.

  16. I don’t mean to insult, but this kinda sounds like the fake climate debate – saying there are/could be “2 sides” to it, or other false equivalencies.

    You can always find someone who objects to any fact/opinion, but that doesn’t mean their opinion has any value (not all opinions are equal, especially in fact based discussions).

    We’re all aware of the catastrophic consequences of too much space debris. If there was a good reason to want that much, it’d be blatantly obvious. As well, you should consider the ethical ramifications of creating a debate about something so important when there is no current debate. Why give platform to objections to something so important. Again like climate change – Some people object for various political/economic reasons. However, it doesn’t mean they deserve equal voice in the discussion. Ethically, objecting to solving climate change is wrong. The same could be said about space debris.

    Link to comment: https://www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/bf02br/should_we_clear_space_junk/

  17. The larger, older pieces of junk should be cleared. This will help reduce the chance of be trapped in a cloud of junk, and it’s something that has been talked about for years. I’ve been aware of these discussions for about a decade, yet little progress has been made. Unfortunately, the average person doesn’t care enough to allow their government to invest tax money to clear space junk. It doesn’t affect them so why should they care, kind of attitude. The problem is, they have a point. To clear enough space junk will cost a lot of money. Then there’s the issue of getting other countries to stop leaving junk in space.

    Concerning the articles suggestion of reducing the amount sent up into space, this isn’t the answer. Satellites have the ability to move and change their orbit. It doesn’t take much for new satellites to be sent with the means to adjust it’s own orbit to destroy itself in the atmosphere. I believe some may already do. Again, this needs other countries to cooperate, which some probably won’t because of the added cost. It’s cheaper to leave decommissioned satellites in space.

    Bottom line, we put that junk up there. We should remove it.

    Link:https://www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/bf02br/should_we_clear_space_junk/

  18. “big and old” isn’t enough of a case on it’s own: it need to be big, old, and in the way.

    Decommissioned high-orbit satellites move up to “graveyard orbits”, designated for the purpose and not in anyone’s way. Those are safe to leave.

    Link:https: //www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/bf02br/should_we_clear_space_junk/

  19. > Is there an ethical case to not clear space junk?

    I’m sorry, this is weakly stated and begs the question. Better stated in the affirmative.

    There is no particular ethical case for clearing space junk (at least in the general sense) since the creators of said junk should take responsibility for clearing it themselves. Barring that, the users of particular orbits should take responsibility in ensuring their orbits are clear.

    > Reduce the number of launches until problem is better understood and solutions are proposed.

    De-orbiting and graveyarding of satellites are regulated by the FCC (at least in the US) and it’s industry standard internationally. I don’t see any benefits and of course there are negative economic and scientific consequences of not having the launches.

    People really are worried (to the point of hysteria sometimes) about Kessler syndrome for some reason. I’ve seen it here and elsewhere. The reality is that it is not a significant issue now and can be dealt with when that changes.

    If it really becomes an issue, there are ways to clear orbits in relatively short spans, even from the ground, e.g. a laser broom/Project Orion. The only reason it’s not implemented is because the benefit is not worth the cost (yet).

    Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/bf02br/should_we_clear_space_junk/

  20. Yes. Space junk poses no health risk to humans (I’m talking cancer, respiratory, etc). The money and time spent on that could be spent on cleaning junk and pollutants on Earth. Spacecraft carrying humans are at possible risk with space junk, along with GPS satellites, etc. but we can maneuver around those in most cases and the number of humans traveling in space is minimal compared to the entire population on Earth.

    Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/bf02br/should_we_clear_space_junk/

  21. Should we clear space junk? Yes. Obviously.

    Should we stop all launches until we figure out how? Absolutely not.

    We haven’t reached a point where the space junk has posed a risk and we’re already working on ways to clear the current debris and reduce the amount of debris left behind from new launches.

    The depiction of how much space junk there will be in 10 years assumes we follow the trend that created the situation, but in your own arguments you point out what I just stated above. We’re already working on tackling the problem before it becomes an actual logistical problem. So chances are by the time we hit that decade mark we may well have reduced the amount of debris in orbit.

    Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/bf02br/should_we_clear_space_junk/

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