THE news that a piece of space junk collided with the robotic arm on the International Space Station, is an alarming reminder that what’s called “low Earth orbit” is becoming a crowded place. More and more stuff is out there, travelling at alarming speeds. The number of tiny satellites being sent up for broadband services is rapidly rising. All of this raises questions and a call for “responsible space behaviour”.
Many experts are saying so, among them Regius Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, Andy Lawrence, who recently published Losing The Sky and takes part in a June 15 online event, organised by the Edinburgh Astronomical Society. Lawrence professes a love of astronomy, space exploration and the internet. “Until 2020,” he writes, “I assumed that these three loves do not clash…. It now seems that was just a Moon Age Daydream. A new generation of satellite megaconstellations is on its way, aimed at producing ubiquitous global high-speed internet connection. All very exciting – but these objects pollute the night sky, streak across our astronomical images, blare loudly and unpredictably at our radio telescopes, and increase the danger of spacecraft collisions.”
Sounds like it’s already a bit of a dump up there…
Indeed. Fionagh Thomson, an Edinburgh-based ethnographer and visiting researcher at the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University, says, “The space debris issue is often compared to the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, a swirling vortex of debris floating in the ocean that increases daily… But there are key differences between the two. Space debris management benefits from an established space surveillance and tracking (SST) system, originally developed by military bodies in particular the USA. Although the SST system was never designed to effectively monitor the increasing commercial space traffic –and the ensuing decommissioned debris.”
Is it a disaster in the making? What about that space junk apocalypse in the film Gravity?
You’re referring to Kessler syndrome, the possibility of collisions triggering a cascade of further collisions? Thomson believes this is a “worst case scenario”, not to be over-highlighted. Kessler himself has emphasised that it would be a much slower, decades-long, process than we see in the movie.
So who is responsible for space?
Like the high seas, it is a global commons, owned by no nation. This also means nobody holds legal responsibility.
Any obvious solutions?
Keep on top of it. For instance, the European Space Agency has developed “debris-mitigation” guidelines. These involve both the reduction of space garbage and its removal. “Viable solutions to space debris and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” says Thomson, “appear similar, looking upstream of the supply chain to prevent debris being swept into the oceans rather than trying to clear up a maelstrom of junk soup.”
And who funds the new generation of garbage collectors and monitors?
Good question. Who cleans up in this commercial arena that is being called the “New Space” is key.
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