Taking in the Trash (From Space)

We've been firing stuff into orbit for decades; it's still up there, and that's not good

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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:

On June 28, 1961, there were just 54 tracked objects in space. The next day, a U.S. Ablestar rocket exploded into 300 large pieces. Since then, space has hosted a carnival of explosions. At one point in the 1970s, nine Delta II upper rocket stages exploded in a row. Another Delta II explosion in 1981, says Kessler, finally got NASA's attention and brought about the requirement that upper stages burn off extra fuel, so the fumes wouldn't explode. The Europeans didn't follow suit until 1986; it took the Russians until 1989 and the Chinese until 1990. In the 1960s, the United States deliberately put 480 million pieces of copper wire in orbit in an attempt to create an artificial meteor trail for radio signals to bounce off. It took until January 2008 for the United Nations to adopt comprehensive guidelines for debris mitigation. But by then, as the 2009 collision showed, it was too late.

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."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.