October 2, 2018.
When you think of outer space, do you imagine a vast emptiness dotted with celestial bodies? Your mental image probably doesn’t feature tons of garbage and waste, but the unfortunate truth is that human impact in space has created a very real need for large rubbish removal systems.
An estimated 23,000 pieces of “space junk,” many large enough to be spotted from Earth with a telescope, are currently being tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network in orbit. This number doesn’t include objects less than four inches in size, which make up the majority of space trash. This figure also doesn’t include the waste parked on the surface of Mars and Venus, or the roughly 20 tons of waste sitting on the surface of the moon.
Where Does Waste Come from in Space?
Astronauts from around the world spend time on the International Space Station, and they generate waste. It’s sent back on commercial vehicles, where it may reach Earth, or it may simply burn up upon reentry. Astronauts aren’t hanging around ISS littering the galaxy full of waste; it’s being launched into orbit from right here on Earth.
Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, human beings have sent or carried thousands of objects into space. Upper stages of launch rockets and a plethora of lost equipment, including a toothbrush and a single glove belonging to Ed White lost during the first American spacewalk, are part of the problem. Most of it, though, can be attributed to satellites and weapons testing.
Of the thousands of satellites that have been sent into orbit since the Space Race, only about 1,500 are still functional. The rest are still in orbit, often moving at incredibly high speeds and occasionally colliding. Some newer satellites can protect themselves from most impacts, but there have been collisions that have damaged in-use satellites. In 2009, a US Iridium collided with an old Russian Cosmos, creating about 2,000 new pieces of shrapnel to hurtle around Earth for hundreds or even thousands of years to come.
The largest single-source incident resulting in space debris, however, occurred in 2007, when the Chinese government used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its own satellites to demonstrate its weapons capabilities. The government was heavily condemned by the global community for the action, which generated more than 2,300 pieces of debris as large or larger than a golf ball, 35,000 pieces larger than a centimeter, and up to a million pieces of at least one millimeter in size.
Why Does Space Trash Matter?
While it’s disheartening to think of human impact leaving trash and debris anywhere, it’s not like space waste causes recognizable trouble here on Earth, right? Actually, it’s not so simple.
Your driving directions via GPS, reliable weather forecasts and the ever-present ability to communicate with anyone in the world are all thanks to operating satellites and the use of orbits in the space surrounding Earth. When a single fleck of paint around 100 microns in size can damage the windows of a space shuttle to the point of needing repair, it’s easy to see how the satellites we depend on for daily life are in nearly constant peril.
It’s not just satellites in peril, either. The astronauts and scientists aboard the International Space Station have been forced to shelter in their Soyuz escape pods on at least three separate occasions because of near misses with flying space debris, and an average of one recorded and tracked piece of debris has fallen back to earth each day for the last half-century. The ISS is often forced to maneuver in order to avoid debris, but they’re reliant upon data transmitted from Earth to know when it’s coming and how to maneuver for avoidance.
Because objects in space aren’t all in the same orbit, they’re zooming around at incredibly high speeds, careening through the cosmos and narrowly avoiding one another. Sometimes, they don’t avoid one another, and the impact is startling. NASA scientists calculate that a sphere of aluminum ten centimeters in size could create as much damage as 7 kilograms of TNT.
The problem has such dire potential that NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler theorized back in 1978 that low-Earth orbit could become too hostile an environment to be used at all in the event of a cascade effect of collisions. This is now known as Kessler syndrome, and whether we’re reaching that tipping point is still a source for debate among scientists.
What Are the Options for Large Rubbish Removal in Space?
Plans for large rubbish removal in space are all theoretical at this point, as no concerted effort has been made to actually tackle the problem. There’s no financial incentive for any single entity to assume responsibility for their debris, because no system of taxation or penalty exists for polluting space. There have been voluntary guidelines for the mitigation of continued waste growth published by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, but there’s no actual treaty or international agreement in place to enforce those guidelines.
It seems in space, as on Earth, keeping things clean and usable for future generations is up to everyone else.
At Jiffy Junk, we aren’t quite ready to tackle junk and debris in outer space. We are, however, more than equipped to manage any kind of waste you can imagine in your space. Our ethical approach to waste management also means you’ll never have to worry about your debris causing environmental issues here on Earth. No matter what you’re trying to dispose of or how cumbersome it might be, we’ll look for the most environmentally-responsible option every time. This means donating anything still in serviceable shape and making sure the rest is recycled whenever remotely possible.
Let us help you turn your next project into a clean sweep you can feel good about, keeping your unwanted belongings and debris out of landfills and minimizing Earthly environmental impact.