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Op-Ed: Hey geniuses – All that space junk can trash your big investments too

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Kepler space telescope. — © NASA

This is a topic that shouldn’t even exist. Space junk continues to make regular news but nothing happens. Just as the hype for investment in space starts up in earnest, a vast array of obstacles and risks orbits the Earth.

This multi-decade problem has received no practical attention at all. I first wrote about it in 2008. It’s not a good look, and it’s a grim vision of a very inept future. It’s also extremely dangerous. The International Space Station was put at serious risk after a cascade of garbage threatened it.

There is absolutely no sane reason for this problem to exist at all. It’s now been 70 years of piling up junk, and something has to be done.

Idiots at work

…And true stupidity keeps on adding to the mix. Just at the time when space investment is becoming a very tiresome buzz phrase, the very real physical risks are at critical levels. The sheer scale of apathy alone is worthy of a psychological study. The scale of risk, however, is literally increasing with every single space launch. In 2021 alone, there has been an enormous increase in satellite launches, notably Starlink and OneWeb.

That’s important, because they’re also up-populating the junk zone, and obviously at risk from any possible cascades. A lot of money is literally going into space with each launch, and ground systems are also integrated into this unholy mess.

There is a virtual blizzard of frag flying around at extremely high speeds. Everything from flakes of paint to much bigger, hard, kinetically dangerous objects. A single hit can become a shotgun blast of other dislodged particles. Each piece of garbage is a potential starter for that blast.

The images of the junk in orbit are bad enough. The facts are potentially a lot worse. This bizarre situation doesn’t necessarily include unreported military and intelligence satellite launches, either. That’s a possible huge problem for modern military forces in far too many ways. The Department of Defense is currently tracking 27,000 bits of debris, according to NASA.

A lot of money is being put in harm’s way by total failure to manage the basics.

The hype behind space investment is real enough. It will happen, and it has to happen. There are vast amounts of resources in the solar system which could literally transform human life. We could even get the big polluters and toxic risks right off Earth.

…And for some reason we have to have an obstacle course right in the way of all space flights? Why? This is like putting a dunghill in the living room, and spending 50 years sidling around it while diligently adding to the dunghill.

It’s truly insane, and staggeringly unrealistic. There is no possible excuse for this slopfest of inaction. OK, some satellites are sensitive subjects. OK, some people don’t want others digging around their high-value stuff.

So do it yourselves, idiots. How much intelligence does it take to NOT solve ANY of your own problems and NOT dodge so many obvious bullets? This much.

Yet another critical issue – What’s coming in from outside?

The other billion-ton elephant in the room is what may come in from space. If one dinky little satellite can cause a cascade of space junk, what about a roaming pile of gravel from space? Thousands of hits, thousands of cascades?

The miracle is that incoming space materials haven’t done more damage. They may well have done some damage, but nothing publicized to the point of even a minor issue. In 2014 NASA recorded that over 100 tons of space dust and small particles hit Earth every day.

That’s 36,500 tons per year, not counting random meteors, etc. It’s asking a lot of statistical probabilities to assume this very large amount of material won’t sooner or later cause serious issues.

Point being – The more that goes into orbit, the higher the risks. Add totally unnecessary space junk as the catalyst for a demolition derby in space. That’s all you need for a greatly increased certainty of those serious issues.

Management? What management?

I’m looking for descriptors for this situation to explain how weird it is:

In any human-occupied space, where there’s a mess, it gets cleaned up. It’s cleaned up either by the person who made it or someone paid to do it.

That’s not happening. Nothing like it is happening. For 70 years, the mess has simply accumulated. This is despite full knowledge of risks, and the ever-increasing costs of cleaning up.

The theory seems to be the Good Old Middle-Class Theory Of Everything; if someone knows there’s a problem, someone must be doing something about it. In practice, this problem has never been addressed in any physical way.

Let’s try a little checklist:

  • Has one single tiny piece of this useless crap ever been removed?
  • Do you have any possible rational explanation for why things are allowed to be in this ungodly state?
  • What in the name of execrable excessive executive euphemisms do you expect to achieve by doing absolutely nothing?

If there’s a 1% chance of a hit or cascade, you can put a dollar figure on it. Do the math. You won’t like it. So do something about it.