Science

Why We Should Think About Earth’s Orbit as an Ecosystem

A Q&A with Moriba Jah, “space environmentalist” and brand-new MacArthur genius grant winner.

A man with dreadlocks and earrings stands amidst an array of computers and video screens showing sciencey stuff.
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Each year I read the bios of all of the winners of MacArthur “genius grant” fellowships, and each year there’s one winner whose citation forces me to acknowledge my own absolute and total ignorance. This year that genius was Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist (?) and “space environmentalist” (?!) at the University of Texas who, according to the MacArthur Foundation, is “envisioning transparent and collaborative solutions for creating a circular space economy that improves oversight of earth’s orbital spheres.”

I asked Jah to please explain what that means, but to pretend—just pretend!—that I am a dummy. The result was a fascinating, moving chat about space junk, what “environmentalism” means, and the deep spirituality of the dark sky. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

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Dan Kois: “Earth’s orbital spheres” means … the place where satellites go?

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Moriba Jah: Yeah. A good way to look at the whole orbital spheres thing is that all of outer space, we could consider it to be infinite, but where we put satellites is very specific places. We don’t launch stuff into random places in space. Because we put satellites in very specific orbits—and I like to call them orbital highways or orbital spheres—those are becoming more packed with stuff. When things die, there’s no off ramp from these highways, so to speak. So a lot of the stuff stays up there for decades or even centuries after the stuff dies, traveling at very high speeds.

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So the highways around earth, in near earth orbit, are just filled with crap, shooting around like bullets ready to hit anything. What is the “circular space economy” that you are hoping to help create?

Linear economies don’t necessarily worry about the waste management process. And so end products end up in landfills and these sorts of things. Whereas a circular economy really focuses first and foremost on the prevention of pollution through things like reuse and recycling of products, and then proper disposal instead of abandonment.

The “circular space economy” is just applying that to space. Ninety-plus percent of all objects we track in orbit is junk. There’s no other area of human activity where people just say, “Hey, that’s cool. We’re just going to create products and 96 percent of the stuff we create in this realm is just going to be garbage that we have to live with.” But space is that way.

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So yeah, it’s prevention of pollution in space and orbital debris, orbital trash. How do we minimize single-use satellites? Just like we’re trying to minimize single-use plastics, how do we make satellites reusable and recyclable? And then when we can’t prevent single-use satellites, how do we dispose of them in a responsible way?

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We’ve only been sending stuff up into space for, like, 50 years.

Yeah, since ‘57.

Why is it that humans have treated orbital space this way? What does it mean to think of “environmentalism” in a place which doesn’t have an environment, at least not the way I usually think about it?

Aha! So this is where I’m trying to bend the mind to accommodate space as an additional ecosystem of Gaia. So let’s say Gaia, earth, system of systems, we have land, air, ocean. And space. There’s a system of systems that is interconnected. There are interrelationships between these things. And even though orbital space doesn’t necessarily have a bunch of biological stuff in it like on the land and the ocean, near-earth orbit space is a finite resource and should be considered an ecosystem.

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Aside from the moral reasons to think of it this way, and as you say the interconnectedness of all these systems, there are practical reasons—you’re trying to avoid the first scene of the movie Gravity happening all the time.

Yes, that’s right.

I’m looking at Wayfinder, one of the tools that you developed to visualize what’s in orbit, and there’s so many dots. I cannot believe that stuff doesn’t run into other stuff in space all the time. Is that actually happening and we just don’t know about it? Or have we just been super lucky?

Things do come fairly close to each other. There’s tons of stuff always coming within 10 miles of each other. And so far we’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a lot of major collisions. The last really major one just happened a couple of years ago, and before that there was a dead Russian satellite that hit an actively controlled Iridium satellite that was providing communication in 2009 and that created thousands upon thousands of pieces of garbage. Because that’s what happens when these things collide. The larger things become smaller things and now we have more bullets. I do think that there are many smaller collisions that are happening all the time, things getting pitted, even though those aren’t, like, mission ending collisions. For the most part it’s just—I don’t want to say luck. Given that we’re launching more and more things, the likelihood of catastrophic collisions is also increasing, especially because we’re not doing it in a way that is planned or coordinated.

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Companies just send their satellites up into whatever lane seems best to them.

That’s right.

You’re obviously a hard science person, but I also see these hints of the ineffable in the way that you present and talk about your work. Those references to Gaia, for example. There’s a mention in your MacArthur statement of your “dharma.” May I ask, how do your spiritual belief systems intersect with your work?

They are one and the same. They’re interwoven. It’s one common fabric. My spirituality and my work, my science, it’s all one and the same. There’s no way to distinguish one from the other for me.

How did you come to this field?

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Oh man. When I graduated from high school, I enlisted in the Air Force and I was a security policeman. Basically, I was guarding nukes in Montana at Malmstrom Air Force Base. And during my night shifts—which were boring as hell, freezing my butt off—I’d never been in a place with such dark skies in my life. I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. Seeing the night sky and all those stars, I’d never really seen the Milky Way that way. I’d never seen Northern Lights and things like that. And I’m like, Wow. And it connected me to the rest of the universe. Space isn’t empty, it’s packed: planets, galaxies, all this other stuff.

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I felt un-alone.

I noticed dots of light going across the sky that I couldn’t explain. I’m like, Oh, UFOs? Some of these things were disappearing in the middle of the sky, which was freaky to me. And then when I started doing some more research, I found that these were human-made objects that were reflecting sunlight, and the ones that were disappearing were because they were going behind earth’s shadow, they were getting eclipsed by the earth. And I was like, Wow, I really want to know more about that.

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That un-aloneness is different from how people often talk about the hard sciences and about technology. You tie it so directly into the interconnectedness of all these systems of people and creatures and the universe. I find that quite moving.

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People ask me, what do I feel is the hardest thing to solve when it comes to these big problems? Is it technical? Is it hard science? Is it soft science? Is it political? And I say it’s actually none of those things. It’s the lack of empathy. That’s the hardest thing. Most of the time when I talk about this problem, initially, people are like, “Oh my God, I never realized there is all this stuff.” But usually the next thing that follows for many people is, “So what, that’s not my problem.” When people say, “So what, it’s not my problem,” it’s because they view themselves or their condition as being independent of the thing being presented to them.

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I believe this idea of independence is false. There is no true independence. You may escape the effects of a cause in your lifetime, but those that you love and those engendered by those you love will not escape that. And to me, if people feel that they’re independent from a given condition, most of the time it’s because they haven’t looked deep enough, they haven’t looked long enough, they haven’t looked far enough. And so part of my mission to recruit empathy is to actually show humanity evidence of this interconnectedness so that people are more reluctant to say, “That’s not my problem.” I want to show people that it is everybody’s problem.

Your belief that seeing evidence will create change is heartening, and also worrisome.

In this sense I’m an optimist, so that is my dharma. I believe that it is possible.

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