Through space exploration and our history of sending objects into space, we know more about ourselves, our planet, and our universe. Today, our lives depend on what is in space: communication systems, weather forecasts, financial transactions and even the location and navigation functions of your mobile phone depend on satellites. Many of the innovations we love, like memory foam mattresses and LASIK eye surgery, were born out of our celestial exploration.
Until now, space was seen as open access, the next frontier to explore. But what we forget is that it is also an ecosystem – and like any ecosystem, exploring it has an environmental cost. Even the smallest speck of debris, orbiting at around 15,700 miles per hour, can damage satellites and disrupt services that have become essential to our daily lives. Worse still, large chunks of debris can fall from the sky and crash down to Earth. In July, the remnants of a Chinese rocket returned from orbit and landed in the Indian Ocean. While we’re lucky it didn’t cause any further damage, we might not be so lucky next time. There is a fair chance that someone will be killed by space junk during this decade.
I have always felt a sense of stewardship over this place we know as our home, Earth. This feeling came through most intensely during a trip to Alaska in 2015, when I saw how some indigenous groups live in harmony with our planet despite the terrible environmental and societal damage wrought by colonization. I thought, “We as humanity will not survive unless we embrace stewardship over ownership.
Ownership asks us to claim rights, while stewardship asks us to claim responsibilities. The effect on the environment, and our ability to use it harmoniously and sustainably, is determined by whether we adopt an ethic of ownership or stewardship.
As an astrodynamicist, who studies the movement of natural and man-made bodies in space, I knew space was a neglected ecosystem that needed to be protected. If this next frontier is full of bric-a-brac, we will not be able to fully explore or fully exploit the innovations that space can bring. It will compromise our ability to reliably know more about ourselves and our planet – knowledge that comes only from space data.
There is a lot of redundancy in space. More than 4,500 active satellites currently orbit the Earth. This number has doubled in the past two years and will continue to grow, but many of them are useless. We often see many different satellites on a common orbital highway providing the same services. This redundancy stems from an ownership perspective as opposed to a stewardship perspective. As we have seen on Earth, the lack of shared resources across borders and sectors has allowed this freedom for all to continue, leading to greater pollution in space and the increasing likelihood of debris falling from the sky. Of course, competition in itself is not a bad thing. However, when competition exists without holistic management of resources and ecosystems, the result is detrimental to all – a tragedy of the commons.
Armed with this knowledge and inspired by Indigenous traditions of environmental stewardship, I became – what I like to call – a space ecologist.
Create empathy for the space
So how do we solve this growing space debris problem and not repeat the same mistakes we made on Earth? How to also become a space ecologist?
The good news is that there are already large-scale solutions in play. Government agencies are starting to get involved. In July, the White House released its Orbital Debris Implementation Plan, outlining 44 specific actions for government agencies to take. The European Space Agency is launching its first debris removal project in 2025.
In the private sector, the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR), which went into effect this summer, provides a data-driven rating system to quantify the sustainability of space missions, while offering practical guidance for improving performance in space. of durability.
For the average citizen, being part of the solution can feel overwhelming, but we all have a part to play. It starts with taking note of what’s going on, raising awareness and learning more about how everything is really interconnected. Everyone should understand that what we do somewhere on Earth influences our oceans, our air, and yes, space. And we must act accordingly.
I co-founded and serves as chief scientist at Privateer, a company that supports these efforts by developing proprietary tools to monitor man-made objects in space. Our goal is to show people proof of this interconnectedness so that they are more reluctant to say “it’s not my problem”, and we want to ensure a safe and accessible future for humanity’s space resources.
At the end of the day, space sustainability is about more than the precise tracking of satellites and debris. It is vital that this data is used to support the responsible and harmonious use of space. We must find ways to share space between private companies, government agencies and universities across nations, generations and cultures.
Space is a global commons. It doesn’t belong to anyone.
Ultimately, we all need to become space ecologists.
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