The Final Frontier of Environmentalism
By Lynda Williams
Published in Natural Living Magazine
The space age began 50 years ago with the launch of Sputnik by the
Since then the world has come to enjoy and depend upon space technologies
including satellite communications, earth observation and early warning
systems, search and rescue, traffic and resource management, GPS, global
security and entertainment. However, like so many other environments humans
exploit, space has become so trashed with space junk that it is at risk of
becoming too polluted to use.
The U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN tracks over 12,000 objects in orbit larger than an apple (5 cm), including 850 active satellites. Space debris– dead satellites, exploded rockets, nuts, bolts and other pieces of junk – travel at over 7 km/s in crowded regions of space where satellites operate. A collision with debris 1cm or larger can seriously damage or even destroy a satellite. A collision with a chunk of junk larger than a grapefruit (10 cm) could not only destroy the satellite, but also create large amounts of additional debris, creating a chain reaction of collisions between satellites and debris, making the orbit unusable for years and possibly decades.
Although the risk of such a catastrophic collision is relatively low, as human activity in space increases in the coming years, the risks will also increase. Collisions between defunct satellites and debris have been observed and some mysterious breakups and explosions may have been due to collisions with debris too small to track. In February of 2007, the ‘Breeze-M’ upper stage of a Russian Proton Rocket mysteriously exploded over
littering space with more than 1000 pieces of junk. In the same month, a retired China-Brazil
spacecraft mysteriously broke into dozens of pieces, possibly due to a
collision with space debris.
Worldwide, 50-100 new satellites are launched every year, all of which produce space debris. Missions to the moon and beyond by the
Even if no further space junk is put into space, the existing debris will break up in time and dangerously increase the amount of trash. A piece of space debris can have an orbital lifetime of days to hundreds of years depending on its size and altitude. There are currently no means to remove or mitigate space waste, though schemes for ‘space garbage ships’ are being studied. The costs for such programs are astronomical and, ultimately, would be paid for by taxpayers.
People on the ground are already paying for the legacy of our space age with their health. Ammonium perchlorate, a toxic ingredient of solid rocket propellant is increasingly being discovered in soil and water throughout the country. Recent studies by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have shown detectable levels of perchlorate in all adults tested, and higher levels in children and in breast milk. Perchlorate decreases thyroid hormone levels and can affect the brain development of fetuses. The EPA are balking at plans to set a national cleanup standard for perchlorate.
There are 32 defunct nuclear reactors circling the Earth. In total, about a ton of radioactive fuel is orbiting the Earth. In order to prevent radioactive material from re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and endangering life on the planet, most of the nuclear satellites were moved into higher orbits where they will remain for hundreds of years. Although no nuclear-powered satellites have been launched into Earth orbit since 1988, nuclear propulsion is being considered for spacecraft for long missions to other planets which may increase the amount of radioactive debris in space. In 1978 the Soviet satellite Cosmos 954 disintegrated over
Air traffic is also a possible target for space rashing hurling though space. In March of 2007 pieces of space junk from a Russian satellite coming out of orbit narrowly missed hitting a jetliner over the
Pacific Ocean. A pilot of a Lan Chile
Airbus A340, which was travelling between Santiago, Chile, and Auckland, New
Zealand, notified air traffic controllers at Auckland Oceanic Centre after
seeing flaming space junk hurtling across the sky just five nautical miles in front
of and behind his plane.
Space industry folks have been keeping faith in the “Big Sky Theory” of aviation, namely, that space is so big that the risk of collision is insignificant. But this theory, like the “Big Ocean” and “Big Atmosphere” versions that came before it, is clearly growing defunct as space fills up with trash. Industry has been free of space debris regulations, primarily because it is in their best interest to keep space clean so they can continue to do business in it. However, with
Some progress towards regulating space debris is being made both on a national and international scale. The
In 1967 the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) negotiated the Outer Space Treaty (OST) which promotes peaceful uses of outer and the prevention of "a new form of colonial competition” in space. It also prohibits putting in orbit around the Earth, or on the moon or any other celestial body, nuclear or any other weapons of mass destruction. Not included in the treaty are restrictions for anti-satellite weapons. States are ultimately responsible and liable for any damage caused by any entity, whether it is governmental or private. Recently the general assembly of the UN adopted CUPUOS guidelines on space debris mitigation, which are largely based on
International laws, which are binding and enforceable, are needed in order to guarantee that all space faring nations follow good environmental practices in space. The Outer Space Treaty must be strengthened so that it prohibits anti-satellite weapons on the ground or in space. International negotiations are needed to halt an already looming arms race in space. Over the past decade many countries, including the
It is time for all the passengers on space ship Earth to embrace an ethic of space ecology, now, before space becomes too trashed for us to reach the final frontier of our dreams.