Space waste: The next frontier

There is a new space race dominating the national media today, but it is a far cry from the old America versus the Soviet Union challenge for space supremacy. Today, it is a space race between two billionaires — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson — over who will be the first billionaire in space. Sadly, the hype over that personal competition threatens to overshadow a looming and increasingly dangerous problem: space waste.

About 20,000 objects larger than a softball are floating around the Earth. That translates to 8,000 metric tons of waste.

Old satellites that no longer function, rocket stages from crewed space missions, even parts of the rocket ships that sent people to the moon are all still up there circling. Everything we have ever sent into space has left something behind, from pieces of satellites to rocket parts. Most of that waste is still up there, circling Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, or seven times faster than a speeding bullet.

Each object presents a potential hazard to spacecraft, functioning satellites, astronauts on spacewalks, and the International Space Station. Each piece of space junk must be cataloged and tracked every minute of every day to ensure its orbit does not intersect with that of a piece of equipment — or an astronaut we are trying to keep alive — causing a collision and creating even more space waste. 

Addressing and solving the space waste problem is critical to protecting America’s national security. We know that space is integral to our current and future infrastructure plans. Everything from our televisions to our war-fighting network uses satellite communications, and our reliance on this technology will only increase. Meanwhile, our potential adversaries are perfecting technology to “shoot down” satellites from orbit, which could seriously disrupt our communications and create more space waste.  

President Ronald Reagan understood the role space could play in winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union through his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars.”

There is also a more current and timely perspective from former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “It takes an alarmingly small piece of space debris, even one as small as a millimeter, to disable a billion-dollar satellite. That is a potentially catastrophic failure for a business, let alone our national security capabilities in space.”

The biggest problem with junk in space is we tend to think about it in Earthly terms. Here on Earth, you can throw something away, and we have a robust system of waste collection, storage and recycling to manage that waste. In space, there is no “away.” Everything we have ever put there is still there, and throwing something “away” means leaving it where it was in the first place. 

Think about what happens when you buy a new appliance. Usually, you send the old one to be carted away, along with the box the new one came in. There is no one to take things away in space, so every time we send something new into space, it stays there, even if it wears out or stops working. We send a new one — along with the rocket and fairings — and those stay up there, as well. So now we have two satellites, two rockets, two sets of space waste. 

This has been going on since 1957.

Today, as we have begun seeding space with thousands of satellites to run GPS (Global Positioning Systems), take phone calls, track weather and create lower-cost internet, there is a growing awareness of space and the various things we might do there. Billionaires like Branson and Bezos are racing each other to get there, but no one has yet come up with a plan to bring home all of the junk they will leave behind. 

As the greatest minds of the waste and recycling industry gather in Las Vegas for their annual “Waste Expo” convention, I say it is past time we turn our attention to the sky above and come up with a lasting solution for addressing space waste. Rubicon has recently announced Project Clear Constellation, with the goal of identifying and encouraging solutions to the space waste problem.

The program’s centerpiece is the Clear Constellation competition, in which colleges and universities are invited to submit design concepts for solutions to help clean up space debris. Our panel of experts will judge submissions, and the winning entry will be awarded a cash prize, hopefully to jumpstart production on their solution.

A great idea, though, is only as successful as its execution. Therefore, we need the support of the waste industry to bring about a solution that we can implement to keep space clear and safe for future generations.

Nate Morris is the founder of Lexington, Ky.-based Morris Industries, and its signature asset, Rubicon, a software company reimagining the waste and recycling category. Morris is a senior adviser to the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, a member of Business Executives for National Security (BENS.org), and the Trilateral Commission.

This article originally appeared in the Las Vegas Sun on June 27, 2021.

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