Experts Unpack the Space Debris Challenge Just Before an “Irresponsible” Russian Missile Launch

Russia sucessfully tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile on Monday, creating a debris field of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris — space junk — whizzing around the planet. The crew aboard the International Space Station was ordered into their spacesuits to help them survive if one of the shards hit their home.

The Russian test, which has been strongly condemned by US officials, has created extreme hazards for satellites. US Space Command Commander General James Dickinson stated that “Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations.”

You might be wondering, What’s the big deal?

Just last Friday on November 12th, a group of experts met with the Duke community to discuss the threats to space – an environment we often forget about – and why space junk poses a large challenge for the 21st century.

Benjamin Schmitt PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, facilitated the group conversation, which featured Hugh Lewis PhD, Professor of Astronautics and Head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton. Schmitt stated that for the last two weeks, people around the world have paused to look up at the climate with the proceedings of COP26, but they “should also tilt their heads back a bit further” and consider the problem of space junk.

The challenge of space debris requires technical and diplomatic solutions, which are often complex. This has been effectively demonstrated by the Russian launch and resultant global reactions to the “irresponsibility” of the maneuver.

Schmitt and Lewis were joined by Brit Lundgren PhD, Laura Newburgh PhD, and W. Robert Pearson JD. Lundgren is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Newburgh is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Yale University, and Pearson is a retired U.S. Ambassador and current Duke University Center for International and Global Studies Fellow.

“The space debris problem is a wicked problem,” Lewis said. And the problem is this: According to the European Space Agency, there are over 36,500 objects larger than 10cm, 1,000,000 objects over 1cm, and more than one-third of a billion objects over 1mm in size in orbit around the Earth. These numbers, though bewilderingly large, are posed to expand.

As all this junk collides with itself, there are more and more fragments and particles in space. Lewis said that unlike climate change, there is not a “tipping point.” There will not be a warning or any sudden event that pushes us into the exponential growth phase – it will just, sort of, happen.

These pieces of debris pose substantial risks to the space systems that our modern societies have come to rely on, like piloting and navigation, communication, and many forms of entertainment like television. “Without those services, all of us, the entire planet, would suffer,” Lewis said.

But this issue of space debris likely feels entirely disconnected and irrelevant for most of the world’s population. “For us down here on Earth, we are really not aware of this growing problem … and we are really not able to connect to it,” Lewis said. “Unless we make that human connection, it’s not something we would be able to address.”

The panelists all agreed that making the connections between space debris and the current functioning of our globe is a critical step to getting the public to engage with the space debris challenge.

There are also other important reasons to care about space debris. Lundgren pointed out that there has already been a global 10% increase in brightness relative to the natural, dark sky because of light-reflecting space debris. This is the kind of light pollution that you cannot escape, Lundgren stated, “You can’t just drive away like with city pollution.” For communities of people, like the Indigenous, this is also having severe impact on the cultural ways in which they use nighttime skies.

Newburgh’s scientific research uses a particular satellite frequency for data collection. This wavelength was just sold to a communication company, meaning that eventually, she will no longer be able to do her work. The frequencies used for satellites are limited, and thus an extremely valuable and expensive, monopolizable commodity. Scientists like Newburgh are gravely concerned about the protection of the future of their work and worried that we might “lose out on science.”

Because of the initiatives like Starlink, a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, Newburgh said that space has begun to feel like the “Wild West” with no rules or regulation. “It feels like you could just do anything.”

This was a very important tenet of the discussion: “[Space debris] is not just a technical problem we have to solve, but a social one as well.” While technical solutions are needed to constrain the exponential growth of space debris, the even bigger challenge seems to lie in answering questions like “Who gets to use the remaining capacity in lowest orbit and how do we decide?” that Lewis asked. “Lots of companies, governments, and so on want to use space,” Lewis said.

Ambassador Pearson said that this issue could be resolved by starting with a shared interest in the space debris issue and working outwards to points of change that are important across nations. The result would not ultimately be the full wish of any singular entity. Pearson also emphasized the pertinence of action: “It’s one thing to talk about what ought to be done and to talk about what we will do.”

While Pearson says that he does not believe there is a way to avoid national competition in space, it is essential to develop rules to mitigate and govern international interactions in space. This is likely to be a long process and has been on the minds of experts for decades already. But as Pearson reminded the audience it took almost 40 years to “get the ball rolling on climate change” and 10 years for the first nuclear disarmament.

The conversation ultimately kept returning to the need to engage the public and the impact that unconstrained space debris would have on their lives. Pearson said it is important to let the public know that the access to health, technology, communications, and many facets of society people had come to expect in their lives, would be severely impacted by damage to our space infrastructure.

“Whenever you think about the environment down here that we all occupy, that we are all connected to, we have to also think about the environment in space,” Lewis said.

He ended the conversation with a quote from the science fiction movie, Terminator 2: There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. This fate is dependent on cooperation between scientists, diplomats, regulatory and technical experts, and the public around the world.


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