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Space Oddities: We need a plan to stop polluting space before it's too late

Space Oddities: We need a plan to stop polluting space before it's too late
From Wired - April 12, 2018

There is a lot of junk floating out in space, and its a problem weve been talking about, in fits and spurts, since the 1960s.

Space junk was the topic of my middle school futurists' society challenge. That year, three friends and I mapped the probable timeline and implications of all the broken bits of dead spacecraft and orbital clutter, writing scenarios about how all that garbage would eventually make it difficult to launch new satellites. Our solution: an enormous net, connected to an Earth-based, rocket-powered launching and landing system.

Space junk was the debate topic my senior year of high school, and my teammates spent the year mapping out arguments for all the ways errant satellites could cause space agency turmoil, political unrest, and human casualties. As a sophomore in college, it was part of my environmental politics class. I wrote a thesis on it. A decade later, when I was living in Japan, a Chinese satellite collided with a NASA rocket. The news, and the junk, seemed to be everywhere, following me throughout life.

Space junk rises to the level of our national consciousness only when somethingan inactive satellite, busted-up rocket boosters, fragments of manned spacecraftthreatens us back on Earth. Were talking about it again because, after nearly seven years orbiting Earth, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 tumbled out of its celestial track earlier this month, plunging to earth and scattering debris over hundreds of miles in the South Pacific Ocean.

Space junk is a problem that continues to orbit our collective attention, and within days it will once again circle out of view. Well ignore the problem to our own detriment. The Federal Aviation Administration is projecting an unprecedented number of satellite launches between 2018 and 2020, with some estimates as high as 12,000 during that time period.

Just as Tiangong-1 was falling towards Earth, halfway around the world in a D.C. office building, the Federal Communications Commission gave SpaceX provisional approval to launch some 4,000 new satellites into orbitwithout any scenarios for how to deal with all that future space junk they would inevitably become.

As humans, we operate with a nowest mindsetwe tend to plan for the next few years of our lives more than any other timeframe. Nowist thinking champions technological achievements, but it also creates a serious blind spot: We forget that our actions in the present could have serious consequences in the future.

Already on Earth, we discard tens of millions of tons of electronics each year. We curdle lakes with toxic chemicals, contaminate the atmosphere with climate-altering carbon dioxide, and heave so much plastic into the oceans that by 2050 experts think there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.

Space is our next dumping ground. As many as 170 million fragments of metal and astro debris necklace Earth. That includes 20,000 pieces larger than a softball, and 500,000 about the size of a marble, according to NASA. Old satellites, like Tiangong-1, are the biggest and highest-profile lumps of rubbish, but most of it comes from rocket parts and even lost astronaut tools. Size doesnt always mattera fleck of paint, orbiting at a high velocity, cracked the Space Shuttle's windshield.

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