In honor of Labor Day weekend, or more accurately, the chores awaiting on the unfortunate end of Labor Day weekend, we present an excellent story about trash. Space trash.
All that stuff we have been firing off into low-earth orbit since the middle of the 20th century, for purposes research-, communications-, weapons-, or nationalism-based? It's still there. It's clogging up the nearest reaches of space. And it's increasingly starting to run into itself.
This excellent piece from Slate explains the prevalence of debris in space, the risks such debris poses to the technology we've deployed there (most obviously communications satellites whose use we have all long taken for granted), and the growing urgency of government efforts to clean up the mess. It's a fascinating struggle and an intractable problem. Plus, the military's research agency's nickname for its recovery effort is, satisfyingly enough, "Catcher's Mitt."
From the story by Konstantin Kakaes:
There is great variance in the amount of space debris hurtling through lower earth orbit, and the greatest risk for damage is caused by the smallest - and most numerous - pieces. But on grounds of sheer practicality, the first efforts at cleanup will be seeking to remove the largest floating objects. (The catcher's mitt is better for catching baseballs than BBs.) But a determination to take even that small bite out of the problem is hampered by two things, Kakaes explains.
We don't know how to do it. And then we've got to get the lawyers involved.
He quotes an expert on the nascent stage in which the debate still resides: "The U.N. committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space are still arguing about where space begins — the same argument they've been having for 40 years."