At this point, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the mounting pollution crisis facing our world. Whether it’s about the veritable mountains of plastic growing in the oceans, or terrestrial landfills leaching toxins into waterways, it’s undeniable that we are facing a pollution problem. However, when people bring up ‘junk’ or ‘littering’, the first place that comes to mind, usually isn’t space.
In fact, if you’re anything like me, you probably immediately thought of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or other effects of terrestrial pollution. And it’s true, that that the trash that might be found in space is pretty different than the trash we might find on Earth — not only are the things on Earth more tangible, but they also have a more immediate effect on the world we live in. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t any similarities between the two — the biggest similarity between the two is their permanence.
Trash that sinks to the depths of the ocean floor rarely ever comes back up to be properly disposed of. We just simply don’t have the resources to cover the entire ocean floor, scanning for pieces of plastics smaller than five millimeters. Likewise, the trash that ends up in space requires high amounts of resources and funding to locate and bring back to earth. Thus, when these pieces of trash end up in their final destinations, they can stay there for lifetimes, if not forever.
But space trash is a growing problem that should be on our radar. Space trash can refer to a number of different things — a failed spacecraft that never came back to Earth, satellites that have finished their mission, or even small bits and pieces of a rocket that may have fallen off. It comprises any human-made objects that have served their purpose, that are now floating in space. And according to NASA, there are already hundreds of thousands of debris orbiting the near-Earth space environment.
As of right now, space trash isn’t a huge concern, beyond as a pesky annoyance for astronomers attempting to image faint and distant objects. And of course, space is an expansive, vast place, so large that humans have difficulty quantifying its sheer size. How could trash from just one planet ever amount to anything?
The problem lies in the fact that most space trash sticks close to Earth, moving just fast enough to not fall back into the atmosphere and burn up upon reentry, and slow enough to not be able to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull. Already, active satellites have to perform hundreds of collision avoidance maneuvers every year, and this number is only expected to rise.
In 1978, Donald Kessler, a NASA scientist suggested that the idea of space trash could become a vicious cycle — if the amount of trash grew unchecked, then any time new objects went to space, they would collide with the existing trash, break, and create new space trash, to the point where the Earth’s orbit would become completely unusable.
One particularly large problem is the tens of thousands of space trash which are less than ten centimeters in size and incredibly difficult to detect. Though these pieces may be small, they’ll have the capability to cause great damage to satellites and spacecraft. In fact, in 2016, a glass window on the International Space Station was found to have a quarter-inch dent gouged into the surface. The damage itself was caused by a small piece of debris, over a thousand times smaller than the actual dent.
The good news however, is that there have already been some preliminary efforts to reduce and remove this problem before it has the chance to negatively impact the future of space travel. The United Nations has asked for all companies to remove their large satellites from orbit within twenty-five years of the end of their mission. There are several methods companies have been employing already, whether that’s just grabbing the satellite in a huge net, using lasers to heat a satellite up and increasing atmospheric drag to encourage it to fall out of orbit, harpooning the debris back, or even just using magnets to attract the metal parts to bring them back to Earth. Unlike many of the other environmental crises we have faced in the past, this is one that we have found, and have the potential and capability to solve before it gets too late.
The issue of space trash, and other climate crises, are all caused and exacerbated by the advent of new technologies, from the invention of plastics to missions bringing humanity to the moon, space, and beyond. And it is my belief that the invention of better, more informed, and more intelligent technologies may be the only solution to these growing tragedies.
Right now, the issue of pollution, no matter where it is, or where it’s accumulating, threatens us all. And coming up with large-scale solutions to these problems doesn’t have to require major institutions, and definitely isn’t reserved for a single corporation, country, or a select group of people. In fact, a high school science fair student called Amber Yang created an AI-based system to track and predict the orbits of space debris with high accuracy, giving us the ability to maneouver against and avoid potentially mission-ending crashes. And last year, I created a simulation modeling system that utilized artificial intelligence, and NASA data, to predict the locations of microplastics on the ocean floor.
It’s up to every single one of us to do our best to solve these problems. It’s only as we work together to make these technologies, artificial intelligence, and other fields of science become more advanced, more utilized, and more capable of helping us solve these real-world problems, do we stand a chance of making the world a better place for all the future generations to come.