At some point every week the trash and recycling need to be taken out to the curb. (Speaking for myself, it is often a last-minute thing, where I am scrambling to get mine out before the trucks pass my house.)
In our country, we all, to varying degrees and to different requirements, properly dispose of our waste, and recycle the things that can be reused. It is not a perfect system, and there are plenty of litterbugs out there, but we have come to an agreement on how to handle our waste, work to keep our environment clean, and leave the country a better place for future generations.
However, we are not yet there when it comes to space waste, and the consequences of not doing so are as great as they are here on Earth. Every launch that we send into orbit leaves pieces of debris behind. Some are as small as a fleck of paint, and some are much larger, like a spent upper stage of a rocket or a retired satellite. Since we began going to space, we have been steadily leaving more and more debris behind. Some 27,000 pieces of space waste are tracked by the Department of Defense right now, but that does not include those (like the fleck of paint) that are too small to track. The more debris we leave behind, the greater the risk of accidental collisions. A very small piece of debris moving at 17,500 miles per hour can cause catastrophic damage to a very expensive satellite, which then creates even more debris.
Let us not forget the real risk of purposefully created debris, too. In November of last year, Russia destroyed one of its own satellites. According to U.S. Space Command, that test “generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.” The test also forced the International Space Station to conduct an unplanned maneuver to avoid the debris that resulted from the destroyed satellite.
The United States is taking the lead to establish norms of behavior in space. In April, the White House announced that it was committing “not to conduct destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing, and that the United States seeks to establish this as a new international norm for responsible behavior in space.” This is a sign of the critical actions we need to take to address space junk if we are to fully use space to our advantage—from national security and military purposes, to space tourism, to you and I relying on satellites for communication.
Norms of behavior are one part of the solution, but the other is what we have here at home—a way to remove existing debris. We are in the early days of this exciting engineering challenge, and through programs like Rubicon’s Project Clear Constellation™, we are finding ways to de-orbit satellites that are no longer useful, or repurpose upper stages of rockets, or build space trash collectors that can fall into orbit and burn up. All of these are ideas under consideration and are going from the drawing board to implementation as we speak.
If we do not actively work to limit space debris we risk closing off space to humanity forever. The environment around our planet will be so ridden with trash that we will not be able to launch missions or satellites safely. Just like recycling and waste management here at home, we need to ensure we are good stewards of space. We need to start thinking of space like we do our own neighborhoods and treat it just as well.
The Honorable Mike Rogers is a former member of Congress representing Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District and Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He also serves as a judge for Rubicon’s Project Clear Constellation and is a member of Rubicon Institute’s Advisory Council.