Polluting The Space

The terms Space Waste and Space Debris are used interchangeably and mean the same. These are the defunct human-made objects in space—principally in Earth’s orbit which no longer serve a useful function. These primarily include derelict spacecraft, non-functional spacecraft and abandoned launch vehicle stage mission-related debris, and fragmentation debris formed due to the breaking up of derelict rocket bodies and spacecraft. The existing numbers of satellites have acquired an extremely detrimental nature. These are highly likely to accumulate in space with the advancement of technology, making it next to inevitable to stop the problem from exacerbating. Another grave issue that space debris creates is that it hinders the functionalities of the newer satellites from fulfilling the aims which the previously launched satellites were not able to.

For instance, if a satellite malfunctions, it will still keep moving in orbit. This, in turn, will prohibit any other satellite from launching in that specific area.

There is a vast number of satellites in space, with reference to the same National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency’s claim that they debunked two-thirds of them, that is, they were unnecessarily wandering in space serving no purpose. They have become a source of collisions and accidents in outer space. We need to understand that the 21st century is the age of space exploration, where thousands of satellites with insufficient technologies and technological equipment are being launched into space. At the end of the day, satellites are human-made devices. They are bound to be ineffectual and cannot function after a specific time period, thereafter getting further reduced into pointless pieces of metal. Therefore, keeping in mind all the space missions that are being undertaken currently, there is no possibility that the satellites and other such types of machinery will not constitute space debris in the future.

This is a critical issue as:-

1. We do not have any control over the space debris they are autonomously moving in space;

2. They increase the probability of the occurrence of accidents in outer space;

3. The only way to mitigate this problem (if not eradicate) is to use an external force for debris removal.

Space race and collisions:

Since the dawn of the space age, the international community has made numerous attempts to regulate how countries utilize the area around Earth’s orbit. However, these attempts have not bound the countries to efficient limits. Therefore, the actions of individual countries have largely overridden the international guidelines. In addition, there is no legal concept of space debris under international space law, which is why no mechanisms can regulate it.

As we are well aware of the precedents already established by the collision of Russian satellites with that of the United States. They elucidate emphatically the very fact that these satellites have the capacity to cause detrimental impacts.

If space gets filled with unnecessary waste, it will become impossible to send newer satellites to outer space for various purposes. Hence, following a strategic approach is essential in order to prevent the aforementioned from happening and make the space paradigm work efficiently.

Objects constituting large debris, for instance- the abandoned satellites, rocket bodies or large pieces thereof, can re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way creating risk to the population on the ground.

The Long March-5B vehicle re-entered the atmosphere, last month. It is claimed that the debris from the 18-tonne rocket, one of the largest items in decades to have an undirected dive into the atmosphere, landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. This is how uncertain the movements of debris in space are.

Currently, we have Orbital Debris which offers clear recommendations for targeted research on the debris population, for methods to improve the protection of spacecraft, on methods to reduce the creation of debris in the future, and much more.

We need to understand that there is a high risk that the debris created in space might return to the Earth, resulting in chaos.

Kessler’s Syndrome:

When we are talking about space debris how can we ignore Kessler’s Syndrome? It states that in the high density of objects including metal scraps, space debris and mission leftovers, the chances of collisions are high. This triggers a certain reaction which leads to the creation of more space debris. While this catastrophe seems to be quite unlikely, the efforts made by various space agencies to launch mega-constellations of satellites in space could increase the likelihood.

Present scenario:

In the status quo, the system of data analysis, weather analysis and tracking via satellites is considered advanced. But there is little or no plan to eliminate space junk. Furthermore, in this era of globalization and modernization, various satellites reach outer space but still, no strict safety protocols are in place.

-S.M. Ayaan Rizvi