Space: The Next Generation

Dodgeball in Space

Heading to low Earth orbit? Watch out for all the high-speed flying junk.

Illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo.

It’s crowded up there.

Illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

Don Kessler thought Gravity, the 2013 sci-fi drama about astronauts in trouble, was “the most realistic fictional depiction” of space he has seen. He is well-positioned to judge: The catastrophe that sets the film into motion—a shower of high-speed orbital debris pelting and destroying satellites, forming more debris, and sparking a chain reaction—is named after him. The “Kessler syndrome” he proposed in 1978 has inspired everything from a shooter video game due out this year to Japanese anime. (Kessler is a fan of Planetes, a series from the early 2000s. “I got a picture with the creator when I went to Japan,” he tells me.)

Drama from the real-life Kessler syndrome would be much less appealing. But as space becomes increasingly crowded, the potential for calamity is rising. Some 6,600 satellites have been launched into space since Sputnik in 1957. More than 3,600 remain, and two-thirds of them are no longer functional. It used to be thought that collisions in space were unlikely because space is so vast. Those who put satellites up were content to let them hurtle around at more than 17,000 miles per hour—10 times faster than a speeding bullet—even after the objects had been decommissioned and become uncommunicative.

Then, in 2007, a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test successfully blew up its target. In the process, it created more than 3,000 pieces of debris, the largest number from a single event. Two years later, Cosmos, a defunct Russian device, crashed into the American telecoms satellite Iridium, adding about 2,000 pieces. The Department of Defense tracks 23,000 pieces of flying junk, but hundreds of thousands more are untraced—flecks of paint, shards of glass, and other things as small as a few centimeters in size. The biggest threat today is ENVISAT, an 8-ton environmental scanning satellite controlled by the European Space Agency. It lost contact with the ground in 2012.

Fretting over space junk is universal among people who care about satellites or space travel. Even partisans in Congress agree that it is a problem. “The scientists who predicted climate change started the same way I did,” Kessler muses. “They were thinking about what would happen if we keep dumping things into the air around us. I was thinking about what happens if we do it in space.” Yet space pollution talks have not been poisoned by political division. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and a climate change skeptic (“CO­2 is not a pollutant,” he has opined), has grimly warned that space pollution is “getting to a point of saturation now, where either we deal with it or we will suffer the consequences.” Donna Edwards, his Democratic colleague from Maryland, thinks Congress should devote more money to tracking the detritus.

A plan to clean up space is held back by different kind of political paralysis than partisanship. In the United States, three separate agencies handle licensing for various aspects of a commercial satellite launch. Another set of rules governs military activities, with yet another for civilian government research. Who has authority to enforce rules or mete out punishment is murky. Moreover, some Defense Department satellite orbits are classified, as is the reason the department deployed an anti-satellite weapon of its own in 2008 after China’s test the previous year. Any discussion about space regulation, such as one held during a meeting of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in May, is filled with bureaucratic verbs that end in -ize (legitimize, compartmentalize, theorize). Too much remained unknown, lawmakers concluded, so they weren’t “ready to legislate yet.”

Internationally, things get even more complicated, in part because no one wants to take on the liability of shared space. COPUOS, a United Nations working group, is developing voluntary guidelines, but “there is no serious effort to develop any sort of binding or mandatory international law, nor is there likely to be in the near future,” says Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, a space policy think tank. Yet many government satellites occupy the most worrisome strip of space, a “low Earth orbit” band at 600 to 1,000 kilometers above Earth, where things are most crowded.

Growing commercial use of space might provide a nudge: Increasingly, private space contractors are flying things through low Earth orbit. SpaceX plans to complete five resupply missions to the International Space Station by the end of this year—though the disastrous explosion on Oct. 28 of a delivery rocket made by Orbital Sciences, a rival firm, might mean increased scrutiny for such unmanned missions. Iridium plans to launch a number of satellites into low Earth orbit in 2015 as part of its Iridium NEXT program. The profit motive might provide enough pressure to boost recalcitrant governments into action.

In recent years, numerous nifty proposals (many developed by public-private collaborations) have emerged for getting rid of the junk. One idea is to mop up detritus using a net to capture flying junk. A Japanese firm has come up with a trawler made of 700 meters of aluminum and steel. Another is to launch machines that would rendezvous with old satellites to slow them down, or move disused ones out of the way into less popular orbits. One prototype, a “solar sail,” is designed to orient itself in the direction that causes maximum drag on an old satellite, powered by the sun’s energy. It’s like flying a kite, guided by solar energy rather than wind, to haul junk hundreds of kilometers above Earth.

These ideas, though novel, are thought to be technologically feasible. If just five to 10 inoperative satellites are removed from orbit a year, the exponential growth of space junk could be halted, says Kessler.

But all these approaches will “hinge on bringing down the price of launching something into space,” says Ramon Chase of Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense and consulting firm. Presently, each pound of a satellite’s weight costs $10,000 to get into orbit. NASA is trying to bring this figure down. At current costs and with tight budgets, launching a cleanup mission in the near-term is about as likely as George Clooney going missing in space. But at least there is plenty of fodder for Gravity 2, should producers wish to make it.