Tuesday, 2 April 2019

In space as it is on Earth

Image: James Vaughan

IN ITS relatively short, six-decade history space exploration and its commercial applications have come to be perceived as cutting-edge, inspirational and a hugely beneficial pursuit for humankind in general.

But one of the biggest challenges faced today by the global space community and its new frontier entrepreneurs is arguably one of the least glamorous. How to deal with the increasing volume of space junk and debris orbiting Earth?

The dangers stacking up in Earth orbit are largely the result of the old “use it and throw it
away” mentality prevalent throughout the early decades of space exploration, although certainly not unique to the Space Age.

Take a look at the detritus created by a modern, technologically literate human society right across our 21st century planet and you will see that such a throwaway culture seems firmly embedded in the human psyche.

But given our ever-growing reliance on orbiting technology, ensuring the lifetime safety of flight for satellites and future astronauts is now more important than ever because, if left unchecked, the dangers posed by space debris will rise exponentially.

A cascading debris event - the spontaneous timing of which is wholly unpredictable by its nature - could have a devastating effect on the space infrastructure we have come to rely on so much.

Even as we transition from ‘old space’ to ‘NewSpace’ the preponderance of space debris shows little sign of abating. Despite some welcome initiatives, practical answers are still largely in their infancy.

So, if we want to maintain a rapidly evolving space programme that is both everyday and frontier, dealing with a problem of this magnitude can no longer be just an altruistic, desirable goal to be addressed “at some point in the future”. Space is too valuable for that.

Time is short but if we establish and adhere to basic guidelines, solutions are just about achievable. The space debris problem needs a two-pronged approach - cleaning up the junk we’ve already created and establishing international agreements to prevent it getting worse.

Our technological and commercial futures are at stake and the onus is on the whole space community to ensure the mess we’ve created on Earth isn’t replicated in orbit around our planet. Ultimately, safety in space is key for all operators and so far remedial actions are not being agreed or put in place anything like as quickly as they should be.

If it can’t be re-entered at the end of its useful life the ultimate goal for anything that goes into Earth orbit is to “retain, re-use and recycle”. But, of course, it is so often a question of commercial priorities - and looking after one’s own space junk doesn’t really pay.

The special series of articles on the following pages in this issue of ROOM is a welcome addition to the space debris debate. Each article addresses a different aspect and together they highlight the problems, challenges and some of the potential solutions.

Just as it is on Earth, now it is in space. And when it comes to anthropogenic space debris the question has to be asked: are we doing too little too late?

Foreword from the Spring 2019 edition of ROOM - The Space Journal

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