Space Debris and the Threat it Poses

Do you realize that humans are doing the exact same thing to space that we did with our oceans?

When you hear tales about a humongous island made up of discarded plastic and other garbage in the Pacific Ocean, at first it can be hard to believe. Then when you actually see photos of it, it’s astounding. When it was discovered, it was a real shock to the global consciousness about humankind’s affect on this planet.

The horrifying discovery inspired new recycling initiatives and awareness about the dangers of waste and non-biodegradable plastics… but the problem was far worse than it first seemed. Not only were there large masses of garbage floating around the Pacific, there were also patches of microplastics on the surface; small bits of plastic that have been broken down by the sun into tinier and tinier pieces. This microplastic is broken down, but not eliminated. Microplastic can be remarkably harmful to all kinds of sea life, incredibly difficult to eliminate, and it’s literally just the tip of the iceberg. The garbage that exists underneath the water could dwarf the amount floating above. And to make matters worse, no single country will take responsibility for it because it is in international waters.

Now, what if we were to tell you that there exists a very similar problem in space? This problem was addressed in detail in the third issue of our affiliated quarterly premium magazine, ROOM, the Space Journal. We are talking about the very serious threat of space debris.

Space Debris

Ever since the first satellite, Sputnik I, was launched in 1957, we’ve been accumulating more and more… “stuff” in Earth orbit. Rocket upper bodies, old satellites, small fragments of metal broken off from old equipment, and a remarkable amount of literal garbage is just floating in low Earth orbit, at around 800 to 2000 km in altitude.

Right now, there over 19,000 human-made objects being tracked in both low Earth and geosynchronous orbit. To make the problem worse, it is currently impossible to track objects smaller than 10cm in diameter. It is estimated there are over 750,000 objects just one centimeter in size and approximately 150 million at about one millimeter in size currently in orbit around the planet.

The Public Exposure to Space Debris

When you explain this problem to the average person, they might think, “Well, space is big. There is room for it all, right? Everything is pretty far apart, when you think about it, isn’t it?” This is the exact kind of thinking that led to the island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean. “The oceans are big, there is enough room for all of the trash we are dumping into it, right?” Only once we started to see the impact our behavior had on our ocean environments did we start to realize the full impact of our gross inaction. It has only been a short while since we have started to see the impact of space debris, and the problem is only going to get worse from here.

Just a few days ago, the problem of space debris was brought up in a governmental debate about the UK’s new Space Industry Bill. John Hayes MP held up the relevant issue of ROOM, the Space Journal, and recommended its articles on space debris to his colleagues. The MP praised the Bill as a step in the right direction, balancing both the concerns and opportunities offered by the space industry and the importance of being good stewards of space. We are proud that ROOM, the Space Journal may have helped to convince the hearts and minds of MPs in the UK to understand the gravity of the situation.

We agree with Mr. Hayes’ suggestion and recommend that you download issue #3 of ROOM, the Space Journal for a fantastic and detailed breakdown of the entire problem of space debris.

What is the Real Impact of Space Debris?

Ignoring the environmental impact (which could be massive), these tiny orbiting objects also pose a huge threat to future space exploration and missions into Earth’s orbit. The small objects are not just floating motionless in space, they are orbiting the Earth at a remarkably high velocity, 20 times faster than a bullet fired on Earth at 8 km per second.

In August 2016, the European Space Agency’s satellite, Sentinel-1A, was impacted by a millimeter sized object that punched a 40 cm sized hole in its solar array. Over the next few years, the number of recorded impacts is expected to grow in frequency and severity.

The big worry about space debris is known as the Kessler syndrome. This is a scenario in which a collision between two larger pieces of space debris results in them breaking up, creating smaller pieces of debris, which then collide with other smaller pieces, creating smaller still debris, and so on, and so forth. The end result of this cascade effect is that there would be so much small debris in orbit that future satellites or exploration missions might prove impossible for future generations.

Space debris also provides humankind, and especially Asgardia, with a huge human-made obstacle standing in the way of habitable orbital platforms. Ignoring the engineering and technology advances that need to be made in order to put these platforms into Earth orbit, we now have to consider the potential danger that space debris could pose to those who live there. At the moment, there is no technological solution to the problem of space debris, although many are being talked about.

What Can Be Done?

The problem of space debris is a perfect example of why a nation such as Asgardia must exist. One of our ultimate goals is to protect Earth from space threats, and that includes human-made orbital debris. As an independent entity, Asgardia is free of any political conflicts and debates on Earth, instead focusing on the impact that space debris is having on the future of humankind and the planet as a whole.

Space debris is going to be a continuing threat to humankind throughout the 21st and 22nd centuries. Thankfully, Earth governments around the world have started to recognize the problem and are developing potential solutions to mitigate the impact (both literally and figuratively) of space debris. Mr. Hayes’ acknowledgement of ROOM, the Space Journal’s article is a huge step in the right direction. Hopefully, other countries will follow suit in the near future.

Connect with Asgardia to Talk About This Issue

Debate and conversation is the keystone of change, especially on issues of importance like this. If you’d like to join the online conversation with your fellow Asgardian citizens, we invite you to joinour forums and become one of the voices of Asgardia. You can also connect with Asgardia on FacebookTwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Google+. If you wish to learn more about the problem of space debris, you can find everything you need to know in ROOM, the Space Journal!


Image Credit: / Shutterstock


Become a Citizen