Galactic litter

With Christmas approaching, I’m sure that many of us are thinking of stars in the bright sky, even twinkling ones, perhaps. So I hope that it isn’t stretching things too far if I talk a little about galactic litter.

I have just read a fascinating article by the excellent Tim Harford, the Financial Times’s “Undercover Economist”. He was musing about all the rubbish up there in space.

Two satellites collided above Siberia in 2009, with a combined weight of a ton and a half and creating more than a thousand fist-sized pieces of metal. Further collisions are just a matter of time, even if no more material is launched into space. And, apart from the possible danger of debris falling to earth and landing on our heads, there is the huge cost of satellites to consider – a lot of money can be written off by one of these pieces of debris hitting a satellite, even though many of these orbiting fragments are relatively small.

In order to be of use to mankind, most satellites have to be fixed in broadly the same orbit as they travel up there around the earth. NASA is, apparently, tracking 21,000 pieces of human-created space debris that measure 10cm across (around the size of a small cannonball) or more. These objects are travelling at 25,200 km/hour which, in old money, is around 15,700 mph – it sounds quite fast to me.

Among the possible solutions to this dilemma are to move the debris somewhere safer (but it is very expensive to do so) or to design future satellites that tidy themselves up – also very costly. And then there is the regulation question – there is no regulatory authority covering US, Russian and Chinese space activity, so general agreement is not easy to achieve.

One suggestion is a tax on new satellite launches but that needs serious political will to implement. Or perhaps all new satellite launchers should put down a deposit, refundable only when the obsolete satellite has been pushed into a safer orbit. Harford concludes by observing that this is a much cheaper problem to solve than climate change, so what hope is there for climate change if there is no sign of an agreement on this issue?

The question of litter caused by colliding satellites does bring to mind the perennially irritating fact that most drivers and recovery services do not seem to clear up the fragments of vehicles that have been scattered across the road and the verge by a collision – and that’s not even including the numerous hub caps that are to be seen decorating the verges along most roads.

So, I wonder, what common ground is there between galactic litter and terrestrial litter ? Well, I suppose that the obvious point is that, at least on earth, land-based litter falls within the jurisdiction of a particular sovereign state and so it’s clear who should be leading the search for a solution. Oceanic litter is, of course a different matter, hence the knotty problem of the Pacific Ocean’s plastic soup and other marine-based litter issues.

But the idea of taxing the manufacturers of the material – with a refund available only when the material is recovered – does, of course, currently manifest itself in the form of deposits on drinks containers. Could this perhaps be applied to other packaging in some way ? Not that there seems much chance of even bottle deposits being implemented here at the moment.

I suppose that there is a very clear argument for minimising litter in space as it can cause millions of pounds worth of damage if it collides with a costly satellite. But doesn’t the litter in any terrestrial environment cost us too ? It’s just a less obvious cost and is often a social cost (a littered area being more prone to crime, for instance, and making people fearful) or a health-orientated cost (encouraging rats and disease or polluting watercourses, for instance).

So is it a question of “It’s litter, Jim, but not as we know it” or is the issue of space litter not really that different from that of terrestrial litter ? Either way, let’s all make sure that we give our planet (and our universe) the respect that it deserves. That, surely, is a perfect Christmas present not only for our world but also for those of us who inhabit it.

I wish you a very happy Christmas and a clean 2014 !

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