Spacex is pitching their latest rocket….as an orbital garbage truck. While we humans have been happily polluting and toxifying our Earth, it turns out that as of late, we have been upping our game and polluting space as well. Earth is now surrounded by a “cloud” of orbital debris, or “space junk,” as it is commonly known. This cloud of debris threatens the future of space travel…as well as civilization on Earth. Luckily, Spacex might have a plan to deal with this problem before it is too late.
Our Growing Dependence on Space
Satellites form an important and growing part of our everyday lives. They are used in weather forecasting, environmental monitoring, but also are instrumental in helping guide our phones, navigate our self driving cars, and even plot the course of missiles and drones.
In the near future, Spacex’s own Starlink satellite system plans to eventually loft some 30000 more satellites into orbit, hoping to provide global high speed internet. In short, humans on Earth are becoming ever more dependent on what is happening above us in the heavens.
The Doomsday Scenario
The growing number of space launches that have been enabled by the falling cost of space access, means that there is a steady accumulation of space junk (ie. dead satellites, rocket parts, and sometimes entire rocket stages…etc). Orbiting above the Earth at 17,000 mph, this debris becomes projectiles that float outside of the atmosphere where there are virtually no air molecules to slow them down and bring them back to Earth. Essentially, we have loaded space with bullets that take decades to stop flying. If there is enough of them, space travel itself could become to hazardous to machine and man.
The ultimate doomsday scenario is a chain reaction event, known as the Kessler effect, popularized by the blockbuster movie “Gravity” where the density of orbiting debris, satellites, and space stations is high enough such that one in-space collision triggers the rapid and uncontrolled multiplication of space junk. Such an event would inhibit space exploration (and take down our communications, GPS…etc) here on Earth for generations.
Can Starship Solve This Problem?
Until now, our best options for mitigating this risk have been to find ways of reducing the amount of debris placed into orbit in the first place (deorbiting spent satellites…for instance) and tracking debris to prevent collisions between objects. But ultimately, it would be ideal to have a means of retrieving large objects from space and bringing them down to Earth where they pose no hazard.
The Starship rocket, with its large cargo bay and low operating costs, could fit the bill. I imagine that governments or organizations would open bids for the retrieval of orbital debris, giving priority to objects that that will take too long to reenter Earth by themselves. Starship could be sent up to retrieve the debris and take it back down to earth where it will no longer pose a hazard to the space industry.
Unity is Required
Ultimately, given that Earth orbit is a global commons, the problem of space debris, will be outside the bounds of any one company or government to solve. Global cooperation and communication is needed to prevent catastrophe in orbit, much as it is here on Earth. Solving the growing disfunction of global institutions is going to be a prerequisite to mitigating space-based risks.