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Queens Law Enviro-Chats: Space Debris

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It’s a widely known fact that our planet is becoming increasingly more polluted each day. We’re running out of places to store the garbage being created, and it is unfortunately common to see pieces of trash littering sidewalks on the walk to and from our school.


When looking up, however, the sky still looks as blue as it always has. It’s easy to think that man-made garbage hasn’t yet impinged on the natural beauty of our atmosphere. Unfortunately, such debris does exist, hovering in great quantities in Earth’s low-orbit, and the amount of space garbage floating around is only increasing.


Orbital debris includes any man-made objects that are no longer in function yet continue to orbit the earth. The vast majority are comprised of pieces of broken satellites, and currently over 500,000 pieces of debris exist that are the size of a marble or larger. In a collision situation even small pieces of space trash can cause incalculable damage due to the speed that they travel. There are roughly 200,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball, and these pieces of trash can travel up to 17,500 miles per hour which allows them to inflict damage on spacecraft and satellites. Even tiny flecks of paint impacting at high velocity have required the replacement of space shuttle windows due to the damage they cause.


You might be wondering why space trash cannot be seen in satellite images of Earth. The answer is that these pieces of debris are too small in comparison to the Earth to be picked up on cameras. Even the International Space Station, which spans 360 feet, is too small to register on the majority of cameras.


While small, orbital debris can cause severe damage to space structures and there have been several incidents. In 1966, a French satellite was hit by debris from a French rocket that had exploded in space approximately ten years prior. In 2007, China performed an anti-satellite test and used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite. This collision added approximately 3,000 pieces of debris to Earth’s orbit. In 2009, a Russian satellite hit an American satellite, adding a further 2,000 pieces of space junk into the mix.


The danger of space garbage is predicted to rise exponentially in the future, as there are plans to launch 18,000 mega-constellations in a bid to improve global internet coverage. With more space structures in the hemisphere, more collisions will occur. Since space debris is so small and moves so quickly, liability is extremely difficult to prove, as it is nigh impossible to track which structure the pieces originally came from.


NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency are looking into creating a vehicle that would be able to predict whether debris is on a collision course with space structures. This vehicle would then deflect the space debris away. NASA has stated that the debris poses the greatest threat to their voyages because they cannot currently track or predict where the pieces are likely to cause damage.


Cleaning up space debris will be a costly and time consuming venture, made increasingly convoluted by issues of public policy. Should one country bear the brunt of the expenses, or should all countries band together and contribute money equally despite unequal contribution to the problem? There are many questions and a lack of answers, despite the UN’s formation of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). One thing, however, is clear. The problem of space debris is becoming more urgent, with the threat of loss of human life and the threat of damage to multi-million dollar structures increasing as the years pass.


It is essential for countries to be proactive about the man made environmental issue of space debris, as without intervention the solution to this threat will only continue to drift further out of reach.


Chelsea Dobrindt is a guest contributor, representing the Queen’s Sustainability and Environmental Law Club

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