Global Ethics Corner: Space Junk

October 7, 2011

Trash; like memory, language, and culture, garbage is a hallmark of our human species. Wherever we go, trash comes with us. Even into space.

According to NASA, over 135 million pieces of man-made metal debris orbit the Earth. Most of it comes from satellite explosions and collisions. Some comes from astronauts themselves: cameras, toothbrushes, tools are all floating in space.

Most space junk is tiny, less than four inches in diameter. But some is significantly larger. NASA estimates that over 20,000 pieces measuring four inches or longer currently float freely through space.

That's a lot of litter. What are we going to do about all this junk?

The good news is: most space junk is harmless. Atmospheric forces cause smaller pieces of debris to disintegrate during reentry.

But NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, which fell into the Pacific Ocean in September, weighed more than six tons. While the odds of a satellite striking a person are low, property damage from free-falling space metal is a real concern.

So is the danger of working satellites—which we rely on to power our terrestrial communications—colliding with so-called zombies, satellites that have either been decommissioned or stopped responding to commands.

The nascent space tourism industry, and the recent proliferation of private aerospace companies, seems likely to create even more trash in outer space.

While only 50 nations currently have satellites in orbit, all countries benefit in one form or another from the military, navigation, and telecommunications applications.

While the space race may be over, someone's got to do the cleaning up. But who? If no one takes responsibility, is the final frontier destined to become yet another human garbage dump?

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

D'Arcy Norman
NASA Orbital Debris Program Office
Illustration: NASA
Chris 73
NASA/Jack Pfaller
Neil A. Armstrong

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