Sunday June 27, 2021 | 2 a.m
There is a new space race that dominates the national media today, but it is a far cry from America’s old challenge against the Soviet Union for space supremacy. Today it’s a space race between two billionaires – Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic – to find out who will be the first billionaire in space. Unfortunately, the hype around this personal competition threatens to overshadow an impending and increasingly dangerous problem: the waste of space.
About 20,000 objects larger than a soft ball float around the Earth. This translates into 8,000 tonnes of waste.
The old satellites that no longer work, the rocket stages of crewed space missions, even parts of the rockets that sent people to the moon are still spinning up there. Everything we’ve ever sent into space has left something behind, from pieces of satellites to parts of rockets. Most of that garbage is still up there, circling the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour, seven times faster than a high-speed bullet.
Each object presents a potential danger to spacecraft, operating satellites, spacewalk astronauts and the International Space Station. Every piece of space debris needs to be cataloged and tracked every minute of every day to ensure that its orbit does not intersect with that of a piece of equipment – or an astronaut we are trying to keep alive – causing a collision and creating again more space waste.
Addressing and resolving the problem of space waste is essential to protect the national security of the United States. We know space is an integral part of our current and future infrastructure plans. Everything from our televisions to our combat network uses satellite communications, and our reliance on this technology will only increase. Meanwhile, our potential adversaries are perfecting the technology to “shoot down” satellites from orbit, which could seriously disrupt our communications and create more space waste.
President Ronald Reagan understood the role space could play in winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union through his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars”.
There is also a more current and current perspective from former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., Who chaired the House Standing Special Committee on Intelligence. “It takes an alarming little piece of space debris, even as small as a millimeter, to deactivate a billion dollar satellite. It’s a potentially catastrophic failure for a business, let alone our national security capabilities in space. “
The biggest problem with garbage in space is that we tend to think of it in earthly terms. Here on Earth you can throw something away, and we have a robust waste collection, storage and recycling system to deal with that waste. In space, there is no “far”. Everything we put in is still there, and throwing something “out” means leaving it where it was first.
Think about what happens when you buy a new device. Usually you send the old one to go, along with the box the new one arrived in. There’s no one to take things into space, so every time we send something new into space, it stays there, even if it wears out or stops working. We send a new one – with the rocket and the fairings – and those stay up there as well. So now we have two satellites, two rockets, two sets of space junk.
This has been going on since 1957.
Today, as we have started to sow space with thousands of satellites to run Global Positioning Systems (GPS), take phone calls, track the weather, and create an inexpensive internet, there is a growing awareness of space and the various things we could do in it. Billionaires like Branson and Bezos are racing to get there, but no one has yet come up with a plan to bring home all the trash they will leave behind.
As the greatest minds of the waste and recycling industry gather in Las Vegas for their annual “Waste Expo”, I say it is high time to turn our attention to the skies and find a lasting solution. to fight against space waste. Rubicon recently announced the Clear Constellation Project, with the aim of identifying and encouraging solutions to the problem of space waste.
The centerpiece of the program is the Clear Constellation competition, in which colleges and universities are invited to submit design concepts for solutions to help clean up space debris. Our panel of experts will judge the submissions, and the winning entry will receive a cash prize, hopefully to jumpstart production of their solution.
A good idea, however, is only successful when it is executed. Therefore, we need the support of the waste industry to come up with a solution that we can implement to keep the space free and safe for future generations.
Nate Morris is the founder of Lexington, Ky. Based Morris Industries and its flagship asset, Rubicon, a software company that is reinventing the waste and recycling category. Morris is Senior Advisor at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, a member of Business Executives for National Security (BENS.org) and the Trilateral Commission.