Since the birth of the space race in 1955 humanity has literally launched thousands of objects into orbit around the earth, all have limited lifespans. Everything from satellites used for communications, mapping, weather forecasting, and global positioning (GPS) tracking on earth to the booster rockets used to launch spacecraft from the hold of earth’s gravity. The amount of debris orbiting the Earth from both government and commercial sources is startling. The US Space Surveillance Network reported in 2012 that there could be as many as 750,000 orbiting objects larger than 0.4 inches (1 cm). With these objects traveling at orbital speeds of approximately 15,200 mph, it is easy to understand the catastrophic results that could occur from these objects impacting satellites or spacecraft.
An Expanding Problem
According to a 2011 report from the National Research Council, “Derelict satellites, equipment and other debris orbiting Earth (aka space junk) have been accumulating for many decades and could damage or even possibly destroy satellites and human spacecraft if they collide.” Left unchecked, this problem will exponentially grow as space debris collides with functioning satellites and only add to the challenge. While some space trash falls out of orbit and incinerates during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, there have been many examples in recent years of these objects making impact with the ground or falling into the world’s oceans. Compounding this problem is the fact that many of these objects contain toxic or hazardous materials. Waiting and hoping is simply not a sustainable way forward to deal with the growing problem of space waste.
Now Is The Time To Respond
As development in commercial spaceflight and exploration shifts to the private sector, now is the time to focus on mitigating this expanding problem and to develop strategies that will support future opportunities. A perfect starting point for seeking solutions to space waste issues is the earth-bound waste management and recycling industry. Looking to industry leaders and pioneers from this arena can greatly shorten the space waste management learning curve. It also allows opportunities for creative applications of industry standards to the unique challenges operating in space will present. Building on the wealth of knowledge and years of experience found within the existing waste management and recycling industry is a smart and timely move.
This is an exciting time of innovation and creative approaches that will lay the foundation for future growth.
(Photo Credit: NASA via Flickr)