Waste in outer space

Who’s cleaning up after the space race?

Author: Aisha Farida Aminu
Editor: Iona Jenkins
Artist: Elena Kayayan

The space race is back. What started in 1955 as a competition between the USSR and the US has evolved into a partnership that has brought us numerous benefits, including weather forecasting, digital maps for navigation, and the internet. Now, with billionaires joining the space industry, and the frequency of space exploration increasing, we have to ask: what about all the waste that’s left out there? Who’s in charge of cleaning it up – and what does it mean for the future of our planet?

Humans are waste-producing beings. Entropy dictates it. However, waste isn’t confined to our planet but goes wherever we go, which includes outer space. Typically, to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere astronauts reduce the weight of their capsules by discarding an abundance of supporting equipment. With only 12 trips to the moon to date, there is approximately 400,000 pounds of waste on the lunar surface with items ranging from wet-wipes to more than 70 discarded probes. Also, according to the European Space Agency (ESA), over 50 years of space exploration and the launch of 6,600 satellites has led to an accumulation of 3,600 satellites in orbit with only 1,000 of them active. This leaves 5,600 disused floating satellites at risk of colliding with active satellites, hitting a spacecraft, or even falling back to Earth. In fact, every year, about 200,000 pounds of space waste falls back to Earth. A possible future scenario is that travelling out of the Earth’s atmosphere becomes impossible without hitting floating debris, thereby limiting space exploration. 

Many countries have joined the space race – China, Japan, India and the UAE included. Each country’s mission aims to be grander than that of its competitors. With Mars being the center of attention and the potential for ‘space tourism’, the introduction of ‘commercial’ spacecraft into the race by private companies like Boeing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, is making it cheaper to travel to outer space at increasing frequencies. This implies that more people will have the ability to visit outer space. Yet, remember: wherever we go, we take our waste with us. Can you imagine the amount of disposable cups, water bottles, cutlery, and other necessities that would be needed to fly civilians from Earth to outer space, only to be dumped amongst the pieces of debris already floating in outer space?

Rather than promoting debris avoidance protocols as a reaction to accumulating space waste, countries and private organisations need to invest in methods to reduce space waste. Most of the countries involved in the space race have issued debris mitigation guidelines. The US’s Space Surveillance Network monitors and catalogues man-made space debris while Japan’s space agency is testing equipment aimed at knocking such debris out of orbit so that it is burned in the Earth’s atmosphere. The ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE) created by StarInc began a trial test in 2013, to capture debris with a net and bring it back into the Earth’s atmosphere and is estimated to be able to remove 36 objects per year. RemoveDEBRIS, a British satellite research project launched in 2018, has tested technologies that use nets to capture and contain floating space waste and is also testing a dragsail to slow down debris as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. With the vast amount of waste in low-orbit around the earth, it would take more than one EDDE and RemoveDEBRIS to clean up outer space.

Other proposals are reminiscent of science fiction. The US Airforce began exploring the idea of a laser broom in the 1990s to vapourise small pieces of space waste enough to slow it down as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, where it would burn up. But this would prove difficult as space waste is not stationary and the laser broom being operated from Earth runs the risk of unintentionally changing the course of the object’s orbit or hitting a spacecraft instead. The Space Waste Lab of the European Space Agency (ESA) aims at identifying, capturing and upcycling space waste and is researching methods to create artificial shooting stars and a gigantic sun reflector through the captured waste. The ESA also plans to launch a four-armed space waste collection robot by 2025. 

Cleaning up the waste in outer space remains a technological puzzle with financial and political implications. The most feasible precautionary action is to design spacecraft that do not create additional waste, and modify the behaviour of astronauts to reduce the amount of disposable items used and discarded in outer space. Who should be burdened with this responsibility? Should each nation and private company independently tackle the space waste problem, or should they put aside their competitive differences and work collectively for safer space exploration and a secured future for our planet?


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