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Space Junk, the Final Frontier for Sustainability

As missions to outer space become more frequent, we could experience a greater risk of space junk causing harm on the planet’s surface.
By Leon Kaye
space junk

As space exploration becomes commonplace and more sophisticated space equipment is set to soar above Earth, therein grows the risk of more space junk coming back to the planet’s surface. At last count, there are more than 3,000 satellites orbiting the planet. Meanwhile, more rockets have been launched into space, and we’re not far away from the private sector starting trips into outer space on a regular basis.

For a while it may be only the wealthiest who can afford decadent trips aboard spacecraft, but concern over space junk and what that means for the planet keeps increasing. And no, we’re not talking about billionaires’ unwanted gadgets being tossed out of some random spacecraft’s cargo hatch. With more rockets being launched and more outdated satellites living out their usefulness, there is a greater chance, even if very slim, that space debris could become a problem – witness the attention given earlier this year when many let out a sigh of relief after a Chinese rocket crashed into the Indian Ocean instead of a nearby continent.

Now a coalition wishes to get ahead of space junk before it comes anywhere close to becoming a problem.

A group of organizations including the World Economic Forum (WEF) recently developed the Space Sustainable Rating (SSR), which seeks to get a handle on space junk. The standards seek to ensure that future – and more numerous – outer space missions launch, orbit and return to Earth safely and sustainably.

Organizations involved in space exploration will be able to measure their missions’ responsibility and safety based on several factors including data sharing, their missions’ choices of orbit, steps they take to avoid collisions, how they will decommission satellites once they are no longer useful and finally, how well such missions will be monitored and identified from Earth.

The SSR initiative took two years to develop, with input coming from WEF, the European Space Agency (ESA) as well as a team that included the Space Enabled Research Group within the MIT Media Lab, the engineering firm BryceTech and the University of Texas at Austin.

SSR comes in the wake of other plans to de-clutter Earth’s orbit. For example, the ESA has in the works a mission that will clean up some space junk in 2025, to be completed through a partnership with the Swiss startup ClearSpace.

It’s true that for now, the risk of space debris hitting an urban area are less than very slim. Nevertheless, concern for what could happen if such an event occurred does have precedent: A nuclear-powered satellite belonging to the Soviet Union that crashed in a remote area of Canada in 1978 left behind radioactive debris that resulted in environmental remediation costs of more than $11 million. Canada asked the Soviet Union’s government to pay for that cleanup project; reportedly the Canadian government received less than half that amount.

Hence any environmental risk is matched by reputational risk should a company’s property cause mayhem here on Earth at ground level. Sure, international space law in theory protects you if an obsolete satellite or wayward rocket lands on your property, but the reimbursement process isn’t as seamless as filing a claim with your homeowner’s insurance policy. “Basically, if a piece of space junk from China landed on your house, your own country's government would make a claim for compensation through diplomatic channels and then pay you,” wrote Timiebi Aganaba for Salon earlier this month, adding: “if they chose to make the claim at all.”

Image credit: Bill Jelen/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye