By GLOBUS Correspondent, Šimon Michalčík
Do you imagine the future of humankind to be interplanetary—or even galactic? Does the Plan B scenario of Mars colonisation soothe your climate anxiety? Then ponder the problem of orbital debris and think again—for we are standing below yet another emerging global crisis of the commons.
Orbital debris (or space waste) extends our notion of Earth’s natural resource system beyond atmospheric altitudes. It concerns heights of up to 40,000 km, where satellites and other spacecraft utilise the frictionless environment of space vacuum in combination with our planet’s gravitational pull: once provided with sufficient speed, they will orbit Earth for ages. For a small fraction of the time they do, satellites provide us with essential benefits for everyday life of modern society—from facilitating global communications or navigation to supporting research and security. The various orbital altitudes had in fact welcomed over 6000 satellites just in the past half a century and their numbers continue growing rapidly. Yet, only around 6 % of those are still operational. Like all technology, every satellite eventually stops working for any of several reasons; but, due to the basic laws of physics, they do not stop circling around. As such, they become the bases of orbital debris.
Yet, the problem barely lays in just defunct satellites. The true menace are the occasional collisions of these objects. When these happen, two structures can suddenly multiply into thousands of smaller pieces. Each of these particles then has the potential to cause another collision, for even a simple paint fleck becomes a bullet if it moves thousands of kilometres-per-hour. Such exponential chain reactions (recognized amongst scientists as the Kessler Syndrome) present a potential future threat bearing severe consequences on security, health, and various services worth billions of dollars. If orbital debris truly gets out of hand, it can render space exploration impossible with a shell of ever-threatening debris. Recent years have already seen a few examples of such events and millions of debris pieces are already occupying our orbital space, most of which we cannot track. Luckily, we are still far from the worst scenarios, only on the doorstep of the tragedy that orbital debris could become.
With the recognition of orbital debris as a common pool resource that requires effective management, both scientists and policymakers are determined to take necessary steps: on one hand mitigating future debris creation by better spacecraft designs, on the other technologically removing existing debris. Yet, binding policies and sufficient tech-solutions are so far lacking, and if the climate crisis taught us something, it is that humans are not particularly effective at resolving tragedies of the commons. So, the future generations’ access to space is clouded.
Anchored, a debut short story by a GLOBUS author Šimon Michalčík, imagines a future with a cast of our dying civilization runaways at its centre. Captain Ellie Bezos and her first officer Jen Musk lead the mission of Arca Humana One, a ship carrying passengers privileged enough to form the first generation of a new settlement on Mars. The success of their mission relies on one and only challenge: Will they safely pass through the many orbital belts dense with space waste? Will they plant a seed for our race to continue being the only known creators of beauty and love in the vast universe?
And when you finish, if interested in sharing thoughts or feedback or if you want to hear first about the sequel (in development), feel free to message the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Header image by NASA via Unsplash