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Spoiling the Last Frontier

Jamming space with junk

This past October, while scrolling through social media one Wednesday morning, I reluctantly clicked into a livestream of yet another billionaire joyride to the lower limits of outer space.

It had been a summer of first launches, overhyped PR events intended to jump-start a long-anticipated second space race. In July, licensing megalomaniac Richard Branson flew fifty-three miles above Earth in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, just a few weeks before supply-chain zealot Jeff Bezos rode his Blue Origin rocket some thirteen miles higher for a whopping ten-minute journey through zero gravity before landing back in the West Texas desert. In September, the Mars-obsessed emerald heir Elon Musk had the surprising decency to stay home while his company SpaceX sent an all-civilian crew—the tickets purchased by a fellow billionaire, the e-payments tycoon Jared Isaacman—on a multiday mission around Earth, now memorialized in a five-part Netflix documentary series.

For these modern robber barons, the dawn of commercial space activity marks nothing less than a new chapter for humanity. Branson’s self-proclaimed dream is to “make space accessible to all,” a prospect that inspires little faith given his defunct rail service and bankrupt airline. For Bezos, space seems to represent limitless capacity, the potential to move “all polluting industry off of Earth,” and create floating colonies that house “a trillion humans . . . a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts.” Musk sees himself as some cosmic guardian, helping to preserve the “light of consciousness” by making humans a “multi-planetary species.”

Despite this grandiose rhetoric, these launches accomplished something much more prosaic in the short-term; they opened the lucrative market for civilian spaceflight. No matter how flush their war chests of cash and equity, these billionaires know the success of their sci-fi fantasies relies on a succession of practical businesses that can keep the grand delusion afloat for decades to come. Space tourism is one of those big bets, and on that autumn day, as I watched Blue Origin host its second civilian launch, the sight had already become somewhat familiar. The concept had been tested, the price point verified (roughly $250,000 to $500,000 per seat, which might seem outrageous but is not much higher than what the 1 percent already spends on private air travel in one business quarter). Now the industry just needed to drum up demand.

As such, the livestream I watched was not just a silent feed but a feverish infomercial. Bezos trotted around the launch site in his blue jumpsuit and cowboy hat, inspiring jokes that he might join the flight at the last moment. The crew this time around included William Shatner, the legendary Star Trek captain who looked terrified standing beside the real-life, plutocrat-funded pleasure craft. Two ecstatic hosts provided play-by-play narration of the press conference and behind-the-scenes footage, like Monday Night Football commentators. The segues between scenes showcased the all-inclusive Blue Origin experience: luxury Airstream trailers, cozy outdoor bonfires, blue specialty cocktails. It was a Marriott-ized vision of space travel reminiscent of James Gray’s film Ad Astra (2019), in which a near-future moon base resembles an even bleaker version of New York’s Penn Station, with the same windowless passageways and grimy fast-food franchises.

All three of the billionaire-backed companies discussed above plan to launch dozens, if not hundreds, of civilian flights each year. And tourism represents just one corner of the booming market for skyward expansion, which raised a record $8.7 billion in venture capital funding over the past year, nearly double pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps the even bigger play is the tens of thousands of satellites they plan to launch into low Earth orbit (LEO) in the coming years. These mega-constellations, dubbed Starlink, OneWeb, and Project Kuiper, aim to “connect the world” by beaming high-speed subscription internet to every corner of Earth. The influx of capital and talent into this sector has spawned a growing industry of partners, suppliers, and competitors—early-stage ventures and public companies alike who want to make it easier and cheaper to launch more things into space more frequently. In the near term, that almost exclusively involves satellites, but someday it could encompass materials for research or manufacturing. Today, companies can already rent space in a cargo rocket to lift payloads into orbit, or even buy their own single-use DIY launch site that can fit inside a single shipping container.

From a scientific perspective, these projects of course represent no great leaps forward for mankind. Humans have been flying rockets and satellites and astronauts into space for over sixty years. Government space programs pioneered low-gravity research decades ago. If anything, these latest ventures mark an inflection point for space as it evolves from a realm of national ambition to one of commercial exploitation. The brave new world unfolding before our eyes is no endless frontier of renewed exploration, but an uncontrolled experiment of epic proportions. How crowded and neglected can Earth’s orbital lanes become before catastrophe ensues?

Rotten in the Stars

The flip side of space exploration is the same trail of garbage that seems to follow wherever humanity ventures. But in this case, the consequences are potentially dire—and on a planetary scale.

These ventures mark an inflection point for space as it evolves from a realm of national ambition to one of commercial exploitation.

Much as our oceans have filled with soup-like swirls of plastic flotsam, decades of space activity have turned Earth’s orbits into a junkyard of metal debris. By this point, you’ve likely seen a news article or TV segment with diagrams of Earth blanketed by a thick swarm of dots, representing thousands of spent satellites, rockets, and upper-stage boosters, as well as the occasional glove or tool kit that slipped from an astronaut’s grasp. Left off these diagrams is the even more sprawling universe of objects too small to track: half a million marble-sized pieces, from stray nuts and bolts to paint chips; tens if not hundreds of millions of shrapnel bits from accidental collisions or intentional missile tests; and more than 100 trillion micro-objects smaller than one-hundred-thousandth of an inch, any one of which could pose a lethal threat when traveling about ten times faster than a bullet.

Scientists have worried about orbital debris since the dawn of space travel. When the Sputnik launch sparked the first space race in 1957, it left behind its four-ton, final-stage rocket launcher in orbit. Eventually, gravitational forces should pull such discarded objects into a fiery doom through Earth’s upper atmosphere. This “self-cleaning” mechanism helps diminish the danger of collision—with other objects in space or onto a populated area down below. But depending on the object’s altitude, that natural process of deorbiting can take decades, if not centuries. Meanwhile, the mess accumulates, other objects collide, and roughly once every week, a large piece of debris survives reentry and crash-lands into Earth.

The unique danger of space debris is its replicability. As zombie objects collide, they produce many more pieces of smaller debris and shrapnel, which become even harder to detect but remain dangerous; those offspring pieces then collide into other debris, and the reaction repeats, ad infinitum. Such explosive potential became a reality on February 10, 2009, when a defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 military satellite slammed into an active Iridium 33 commercial satellite. The incident—the first major accidental collision—defied every detection system and risk indicator; within weeks, it single-handedly doubled the total number of debris objects in orbit.

Today, combatting space junk has already become a routine nuisance for satellites and astronauts; both rely on propulsion systems to dodge objects throughout their missions. The U.S. Space Command now issues more than one hundred thousand collision warnings every day. Last year, the International Space Station conducted multiple debris-avoidance maneuvers, including one in which the onboard crew had to evade a piece of debris spawned by a Chinese antisatellite test in 2007. For years, untracked pieces of space junk have chipped the ISS’s windows and punctured robotic limbs, informing new spacecraft designs specially outfitted with deflection shields. As more spacefaring companies plan a busy launch calendar, ideal dates and flight paths are as likely to be determined by openings in the shifting clouds of debris as they are by wind or rainy weather conditions.

How crowded and neglected can Earth’s orbital lanes become before catastrophe ensues?

Despite these copious warning signs, the second space race barrels ahead. The number of active satellites in LEO is set to explode from a few thousand to more than one hundred thousand by the end of the decade, a ten-fold increase largely attributed to those mega-constellations of internet-beaming satellites. Musk’s Starlink has already launched over seventeen hundred units, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all active satellites in orbit; eventually, his fleet will number over forty thousand. OneWeb—which Branson backed for years until his relationship with the company exploded in classically disastrous fashion—has launched half of its planned 648 satellites, and Bezos’s Project Kuiper will begin launching the first of its own three thousand next year. This flood of new objects has scarcely begun, and already these satellites are increasing collision risk and curtailing the work of astronomers and climate observers. Even SpaceX’s revised, sun-shaded satellites are prone to photobombing long-exposure shots of the deep galaxy, wasting researchers’ limited time on digital tinkering to remove their glaring, anomalous streaks. Similar to how pieces of plastic marine pollution may eclipse the fish population within decades, astronomers predict that satellites will soon outnumber stars visible to the naked eye—another stark benchmark in our Anthropocene era.

Some believe we’re already witnessing a worst-case scenario unfold, as the addition of new debris far outpaces the deorbiting of existing space junk. In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler prophesied a scenario now known as “Kessler’s syndrome,” in which high orbital densities trigger a massive chain reaction rendering LEO unusable. “It has already started,” Kessler recently told Scientific American, an escalation of his stance in 2015, which still presumed the problem could be mitigated by retrieving the largest few hundred pieces of debris. “There is now agreement within the community that the debris environment has reached a ‘tipping point’ where debris would continue to increase even if all launches were stopped. It takes an Iridium-Cosmos type collision to get everyone’s attention. That’s what it boils down to . . . and we’re overdue for something like that to happen.”

In Kessler’s view, all it might take are a few collisions between large objects to trigger a potentially cataclysmic reaction, turning LEO into a thick smog of atomized debris. Such a catastrophe would jeopardize not only billionaire vanity projects but the cosmic infrastructure underlying much of our technological lives. The blue GPS dot on your phone, emergency weather monitoring services, and digital financial transactions are just a few of the essential services that rely on satellites in LEO or deep, geostationary orbit, the two realms most cluttered with debris. As the European Space Agency director of operations, Rolf Densing, bluntly put it in 2017, “You might as well move into a museum if all the satellites are switched off.”

You could argue it’s encouraging that space junk has become something of a cause célèbre. Debris is a staple of the sci-fi genre, in films like Wall-E (2008) and Gravity (2013), and most recently, the South Korean blockbuster Space Sweepers (2021), about a ragtag group of celestial scavengers in a future where Earth is nearly uninhabitable. The cosmic plight of debris has become a frequent subject of primetime news programs and special committees organized by the United Nations and World Economic Forum. Greta Thunberg hasn’t yet decried its sins, but we can expect it on her agenda soon. I was amused to find during my research that The Economist has reported on space junk incessantly for more than a decade, providing a real-time account of the journey from initial curiosity to mounting despair, in plain sight and full knowledge of its audience, our supposedly pragmatic powerbrokers.

As seen with the pet cause of plastic marine pollution, the celebrity attention afforded to a collective problem can backfire. Rather than inspire the difficult work of forging new rules or frameworks, or committing to responsible disposal guidelines, the specter of an environmental crisis can spur an unproductive focus on private choices and silver-bullet solutions. There’s nothing our deep-pocketed monopolists love more than to find new reasons for throwing technology at social problems. In the fast-devolving context of our second space race and worsening orbital debris densities, we’re now seeing the industry’s most shameless hucksters, who have already made a buck polluting the high skies, spin up new schemes to make another buck pretending to clean up their own mess.

After the Gold Rush

There is a long and complex list of reasons for why “cleaning up” space debris is impractical. For starters, the task of capturing or deorbiting a perpetually spinning object traveling at thousands of miles per hour is arguably more technologically daunting than landing a person on the moon. And for a reactive, rather than preventative, approach to succeed, you’d have to repeat the task tens of thousands of times, while somehow not generating any new debris from your celestial garbage truck.

Astronomers predict that satellites will soon outnumber stars visible to the naked eye—another stark benchmark in our Anthropocene era.

If that doesn’t already sound like a deal-breaker, consider another lesser-known truth: the vast majority of debris is too small to track, and there is little consensus among space observers about how to accurately track the path of those larger objects we can detect. Space junk doesn’t travel in perfect ellipses but rather highly variable paths that never arrive in the same place twice. State-of-the-art databases like ASTRIAGraph show that U.S. and Russian tracking systems sometimes contain two entirely different orbits for the same object. In a sense, the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos crash that ignited global concerns about space debris was a technological wake-up call, revealing the limits of our detective powers. As David Finkleman wrote in American Scientist: “The possibility [of the Cosmos-Iridium collision] was recognized, but the calculated probabilities were actually much lower than for other possible encounters during the same period.”

While these efforts are continually getting better and more sophisticated, they are still many factors away from being truly actionable. Nevertheless, debris tracking has become a massive, multi-billion-dollar business. Companies like LeoLabs, Northstar, and Lockheed Martin offer radar-based monitoring subscriptions that can cost between $10 million to $100 million per year. Like every enterprise software product, these companies increasingly tout black-box artificial intelligence that supposedly achieves marginal increases in accuracy regarding object placement or collision risk. Recently, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak revealed a new startup investment that aims to create “the Google Maps of space,” purportedly by launching hundreds of satellites into space to study debris and layering a glossy UI over other publicly available data. If nothing else, I suppose these services provide some small peace of mind, perhaps fulfilling a minimum compliance threshold.

Although we can’t yet agree on how to accurately and reliably track space junk, there is already a burgeoning market for clean-up technologies. Early-stage ventures have raised eight- and nine-figure sums to produce working prototypes of retrieval magnets (Astroscale), harpoons (RemoveDEBRIS), and a massive robotic claw (ClearSpace); these missions are undergoing proof-of-concept tests that will last at least until 2025. Then there are the countless pipedreams still awaiting development: giant foam balls, debris-deflecting laser guns, even a weaponized hot-air balloon which Raytheon envisions using to push debris into deorbit—a plan as nuanced as Trump’s idea to attack hurricanes with nukes.

Of all the harebrained policies floated about space debris on the global lecture circuit, perhaps the most egregious is the idea of a launch tax, or “bottle deposit scheme.” This progressive-sounding idea would collect fees for a general clean-up fund, to support a technological solution that doesn’t yet exist, and even if it did, would be grossly outmatched in scale. It’s an almost perfectly inane program designed to generate a bureaucratic talking point while doing nothing to address the actual problem.

In addition to being unproven, exorbitantly expensive, and scientifically suspect, clean-up efforts in space also court disaster; a failed attempt can result in a crash and detonate a fresh “bomb” of new debris. And even if you pull off a small miracle and successfully retrieve a piece of space junk, it’s not entirely clear you’ll be legally permitted to dispose of it. According to the only signed international space law on the books—the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—a defunct object in space belongs in perpetuity to the host country from which it launched. As your hypothetical garbage truck awaits your command on how to handle its retrieved junk, your breakthrough environmental mission may also be misconstrued as a covert threat, triggering a military response from another country. Spacecrafts that can retrieve a defunct satellite can also be used to disarm an active one.

For all these reasons and more, the only chance we have to overcome space debris is to immediately limit new launches and agree on sustainability standards across the board. Every satellite, booster rocket, and other detachable module should be equipped with deorbiting sails or fins to steer it toward incineration, or in some cases, propellers to lift it into a far-out “graveyard” orbit. But today, there are no mandatory end-of-life plans for spacecraft. The scant informal guidelines set by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee recommend lowering satellites into deorbit within twenty-five years; and even then, only about half of all missions have met this minimum request. Rather than bowing to the gospel of tech and innovation, governments need to stimulate more robust discussion about the economic development of space and which projects are indeed worthy of licensing for the public good.

The ideal window for shaping this rollout would’ve been years ago, before the floodgates of capital were opened. One of the basic mandates of the Outer Space Treaty is to avoid harmful contamination of space. But over the past two decades, the converging interests of big tech and military-industrial stalwarts have steadily eroded this provision. In the United States, the administrations of both presidents Bush and Obama became prominent cheerleaders for the cause, directing NASA to transition ISS resupply missions to private contractors and giving startups like SpaceX critical injections of early cash flows.

Casey Dreier, a nonprofit adviser on space policy, said that the biggest legacy of the Obama administration “was fully embracing the potential of commercial launch capabilities . . . and fighting for it against a lot of opposition from Congress.” In the home stretch of his final term, with hardly a mention in mainstream news media, Obama signed the SPACE Act of 2015, a lobbyist-backed bill that unilaterally opened the celestial orbits to U.S. citizens and corporations to “engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference.”

If commercialization means harm, as we’ve seen so clearly in the issue of space debris—as well as the space industry’s ballooning carbon footprint and possible ozone depletion—then the United States became the first country to violate the spirit of the OST, while patting ourselves on the back for our brave, adventurous spirit. At first, the only other nations to join our exile were tax-haven Luxembourg and the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, both of whom are eager to oblige the ultra-wealthy fetish for all things space. But last summer, Japan passed similar legislation, and it’s all but certain that other governments will soon follow. Is there any doubt that Obama himself, who vacationed on Richard Branson’s private island in the Caribbean just weeks after leaving the White House, will be riding a Virgin Galactic spacecraft in the next twelve to eighteen months?

Space Jam

With so few reasons for optimism these days, I sometimes feel like a grouch for questioning all this renewed interest in space. While reading journalist Allegra Hobbs’ dispatch from Blue Origin’s first launch for Texas Monthly, I was humbled by the scene of local residents gathered along Highway 54 to watch, people who still see this work as hopeful. “This is a pinnacle moment in history,” one man tells her. “You watch movies like Star Trek—who’s to say this isn’t the beginning?” And surely there are possibilities in zero gravity for novel scientific and biological research. While living in Boston, I was reminded many times walking through Logan Airport, by its prominent JFK exhibit, about the technologies that sprung from the original space program: everything from LASIK eye surgeries and CAT scans to freeze-dried foods and memory foam.

The task of capturing or deorbiting a perpetually spinning object traveling at thousands of miles per hour is arguably more technologically daunting than landing a person on the moon.

But in looking at the cosmic tragedy of our second space race, it’s hard not to see a damning indictment of our own fecklessness. For decades, the world’s industrialized countries have attempted to unwind centuries of plunder and pollution on Earth, cleaning rivers and oceans of the toxic byproducts from heavy industry. And all throughout this supposed reckoning, we have repeated the same mistakes in yet another domain, this one above our heads and arguably the last unravaged by human intervention. Has there ever been more unassailable proof that we have learned nothing?

Over the past year, we’ve already seen a glimpse of how the skies might come tumbling down without any meaningful regulation. Last April, an out-of-control rocket stage from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 crashed into a farm in Washington. In May, space enthusiasts and amateur stargazers tracked for days the uncontrolled fall of debris from the Chinese Long March 5B rocket, which crashed into the Indian Ocean, near the Maldives; citizen-observers in Israel and Oman shared their sightings of the passing debris on social media. In August, we learned that the mysterious disintegration of a Chinese satellite months earlier was in fact the result of a collision with a piece of a defunct Russian rocket launched in 1996—arguably the most notable debris-producing incident since the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos crash. In October, another failed Russian military spacecraft streaked through the night skies like a passing comet over Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana before burning up on its descent.

I’ve been particularly baffled by the persistent lack of concern about debris among the industry’s most ardent boosters, even when presented with stories of such close encounters. In an October interview with Science, one former Starlink team member described the tunnel vision of his team’s agenda: “There was a lot of talk about how, financially, we could possibly make this happen . . . There was very little talk about it as a moral or ethical or even just a collision problem.” His last point reveals a stunning lack of competence on the part of those perceived to be our era’s most brilliant operators. By impatiently flooding the skies with their cold imitations of the universe, lusting tycoons like Musk and Bezos are accelerating their own defeat, creating a dense barrier of garbage between them and their boyhood dreams.

While the hypothetical onset of Kessler’s syndrome sounds apocalyptic, I increasingly wonder if we’ll even notice as it happens. Rather than one big chain reaction that converts LEO into a rubble-strewn wasteland overnight, it might look more like a gradual refashioning of space into something flat and familiar. Orbital lanes will become highways of small satellites and cargo carriers. Companies will send items to space with a single mouse-click. Every government will build its own low-cost, space-station consulate. Over time, insurance premiums for satellites will rise alongside increased orbital density and collision risk. Companies and militaries will spend unreasonable sums on snake-oil tracking and collision-avoidance systems. Eventually, certain orbital highways will become unusable, while the rest strain with untenable congestion, like Los Angeles at rush hour. On any given day, people will complain about poor space traffic management; the junk will be a given.