Every year, we leave 2.12 billion tons of waste, or garbage, on the planet. Let me give you a striking example to visualize this figure: If all these wastes were loaded onto trucks lined up one after another, these trucks would be long enough to circumnavigate the world 24 times! What about space junk?
This time, our topic is not on earth, but on the garbage we create in the sky, which we cannot see with the naked eye. Moreover, it is not a fixed but a mobile garbage dump that is pregnant with different dangers every day…
NASA estimates that there are about 27,000 man-made objects larger than 10 centimeters classified as space junk. This garbage continues to orbit the earth. They are of no use to humanity either now or in the future. Because these are old satellites, rocket and spacecraft parts. More precisely, the remains…
There is now more useless space junk in orbit than active satellites. Yes, space is a big place. But the amount of fast-moving garbage built into orbit has grown steadily over the past six decades. Space agencies, military and private operators have launched thousands of satellites for espionage and navigation, scientific missions, communications and more. Earth’s orbit has now become an alarmingly crowded place.
We left our mark with garbage not only on the Earth’s orbit, but also on the Moon’s surface. As of today, there are 190,000 kg of waste on the lunar surface. Among them are 3 space cars and dozens of equipment.
The danger of space junk!
Space debris in motion in orbit is estimated to weigh more than 8,000 tons. These run the risk of hitting other objects and indeed active satellites as well. And of course, left as such they have the potential to stay aloft for hundreds and thousands of years.
So what does this mean? Let’s take a look at some examples from the past…
In February 2009, an operational Iridium communications satellite crashed into a now obsolete Russian military satellite at 42,000 km/h. This event, which took place just 770 km above Siberia, created thousands of pieces of space debris junk that still threaten active satellites today.
In 2007, China destroyed an old weather satellite with a missile, increasing the amount of space debris in low Earth orbit by 30%. The US and India followed the same path in 2008 and 2019 respectively, further complicating the trajectory. Russia blew up an old satellite with a missile last year, creating more than 1,500 pieces of waste that will surround the planet for years.
The problem is that collisions between these high-speed garbage create even more garbage. The worst-case scenario is Kessler Syndrome, an unstoppable string of domino-effect collisions in Earth orbit. According to this scenario, there will be no active satellites in orbit as a result of successive collisions, and the world will become blind and deaf for all basic activities carried out through satellites today.
Satellites and Sustainable Development Goals
The function of satellites is critical for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The study by Will Marshall, CEO of Planet Lab, and his team provides detailed data on this subject. Accordingly, it is thought that 12 out of 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals can be reached through these satellites.
Let’s take a look at this with very basic examples. With the help of satellite imagery, we identify the steps we have taken in areas such as agricultural productivity, wide and effective monitoring of reservoir water levels, deforestation, pollution levels of waters, the status of ice floes and desertification globally, and the establishment of early warning systems to prevent these events.
In addition to good health and well-being, communication satellites also have benefits for quality education. Currently, only half of the world’s population has access to the Internet, and thanks to a global communication satellite network, the Internet can be brought to regions where there is no infrastructure and where there is less development. This means increased knowledge sharing in fields such as medicine and education.
Even from these examples, it can be said that satellites and space technology in general are of critical importance for a sustainable healthy future.
Therefore, countries and international organizations related to space garbage, which is dangerous at many points, need to take precautions quickly.
In this regard, the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs has taken a step and published a directive. Through the published directive, an attempt was made to reduce space debris and outline how nations and companies should behave in space. We will see together in the coming days whether it will have an effective benefit.
However, as private companies such as SpaceX plan to launch up to 100,000 new satellites within a decade, the measures and decisions to be taken on these issues become increasingly urgent and critical.
Humanity has succeeded in turning not only the earth in which it lives into a garbage dump, but also the space despite its short historical past. Now, it is after so-called solutions to deal with the problems it has created. Just like a cat trying to catch its own tail.
The Guardian Weekly article by Ian Sample