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Discover the hidden dangers of space debris, including lunar trash and Earth’s orbit chaos. Explore the urgent call for international action in this eye-opening article.
As the world’s attention turns towards the moon, our celestial neighbour is increasingly becoming cluttered with a peculiar form of waste – discarded rocket boosters, human excreta, and various miscellaneous items. In August 2023, Russia’s Luna-25 probe met an unfortunate fate, crashing into the lunar surface, while India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission celebrated a successful touchdown in the moon’s southern polar region, marking India as the fourth country to achieve this feat. However, with more countries and private companies venturing to the moon, there is growing concern about the accumulation of landers, debris, and waste left behind on the lunar surface and in orbit around Earth.
I am Chris Impey, a University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, with a keen interest in space exploration and its ethical implications. Like many experts in the field, I am increasingly alarmed by the lack of effective governance surrounding space debris.
While space may appear vast and empty, the near-Earth environment is rapidly filling up with satellites, lunar missions, and other space-related activities. Over the next decade, governments and private enterprises, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, plan to undertake approximately 100 lunar missions. The region known as near-Earth orbit, extending from 100 to 500 miles above Earth’s surface, is experiencing an even greater influx of activity, with nearly 7,700 satellites currently orbiting within this zone. It is projected that this number could skyrocket to several hundred thousand by 2027, as companies like SpaceX reduce launch costs, spurring a wave of space-based initiatives.
This surge in activity brings forth significant challenges, particularly the generation of hazards and space debris. The moon, too, is not immune to this problem, as it has accumulated remnants of past missions, including rocket boosters, human waste, and even peculiar items like feathers, golf balls, and boots, amounting to roughly 200 tons of human-made waste.
Earth’s orbit is also plagued by clutter, consisting of defunct spacecraft, discarded rocket boosters, and items jettisoned by astronauts, such as gloves, wrenches, and even toothbrushes. More alarmingly, there are approximately 23,000 objects larger than 10 cm (4 inches) and around 100 million smaller fragments, measuring over 1 mm (0.04 inches) in size. Even seemingly inconsequential debris poses a grave threat, hurtling through space at a staggering 15,000 mph (24,140 km/h), ten times faster than a bullet. At such velocities, even a minuscule paint fleck can puncture a spacesuit or wreak havoc on sensitive electronic equipment.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler outlined a dire scenario in which collisions between orbiting debris generate more debris, leading to exponential growth and rendering near-Earth orbit essentially unusable. This phenomenon is known as the “Kessler syndrome.”
International agreements, such as the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the United Nations Moon Agreement of 1979, emphasize the peaceful use of celestial bodies and the notion that the moon and its resources are the common heritage of humanity. However, these treaties lack specific provisions regarding the activities of private companies and individuals. In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed a law that unleashed the American commercial space industry with few restrictions, further exacerbating the issue.
The absence of regulation has turned space debris into a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons,” where competing interests exploit a shared resource without restraint, ultimately depleting it to the detriment of all. To avert this catastrophe, many scientists argue that the orbital space environment should be recognized as a global commons deserving of protection by the United Nations. In late 2021, a Nature article supporting this perspective was submitted as an amicus brief in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
While the court refrained from ruling on the environmental aspect, citing a lack of standing, it is apparent that national and commercial interests are poised to take precedence over interplanetary conservation unless the United Nations takes proactive steps. The U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs initiated a policy document in May 2023 to address the sustainable development of activities in space, potentially paving the way for a new treaty.
It is essential to recognize that the U.N. can regulate the activities of its member states, but it also strives to assist member states in developing national-level policies aligned with the goals of sustainable space development. Additionally, NASA has established and endorsed the Artemis Accords, offering broad principles for peaceful cooperation in space, with 28 countries signing on. However, notable omissions from this list include China and Russia, while private companies remain outside its purview.
In the absence of comprehensive regulation and the prevailing “gold rush” mentality in space exploration, the issue of space debris and waste will continue to escalate, bringing with it an array of associated problems and dangers. The time has come for international collaboration and stringent measures to safeguard our immediate space environment and ensure the responsible exploration and utilization of outer space.