Junk this complacency

This article first appeared as the lead Comment in the 7 May issue of Flight International:

Say the word “spaceflight” and most people think of daring missions, dashing astronauts and achingly beautiful images of our own world or the deep cosmos. From Sputnik through Apollo and the Moon walks to Mars rovers, orbiting telescopes and the incomparable views from the International Space Station, the space age has opened a new frontier and brought to humankind benefits that would dazzle even the visionaries who first probed the edge of our atmosphere.

Unfortunately, as humankind has done with every other new frontier, we’ve also turned space into a giant junkyard.

Space is a big place, so that is quite an achievement in less than 60 years. But the reality is that while we can talk about new missions to exotic worlds (back to the Moon, anyone, or how about a foot on Mars?) we should be talking seriously about much less glamorous missions – to clean up the mess we’ve left in orbit.

All the experts are alarmed. At orbital speeds, even coin-sized flecks of metal can destroy a spacecraft, and there are many tens of thousands of such flecks whizzing around the useful orbits that host the satellites which give us intercontinental telecoms, navigation, make bank transfers work, and view the ground.

Big chunks of metal are also up there, from old rocket bodies and dead satellites to pieces thereof. Even if every mission from today onwards were to be as responsible as possible and leave no more pieces behind, collisions are inevitable, and every collision makes more pieces. The problem goes beyond the probable loss of valuable space assets; we actually run the risk of being grounded.

We must hope that policy makers – and budget holders – in the capitals of all spacefaring nations heed the scientists’ call for the money and political will to start cleaning up space. As delegates to the sixth European conference on debris recently concluded, the need is urgent, and it is time – past time – to recognise that “the removal of space debris is an environmental problem of global dimensions that must be assessed in an international context, including the UN”.

The problem has even been likened to our realisation 20 years ago that global warming is a brewing cataclysm that cannot be ignored. The rather poor record so far of the international community in turning climate change concerns into effective action does not bode well for the space debris crisis. But crisis it is, and the sooner it is widely recognised as such the better.

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