Commentary: Houston, we have an environmental problem — in space

This year marks 60 years since the United States started sending satellites into space. During that span, we have led extraordinary scientific discovery across our solar system. But our space exploration has taken a toll on one thing: the orbital environment.

Simply put, there is a lot of debris orbiting Earth. And if we don’t do anything about it, we will see an increase in collisions to the detriment of space operations, space commerce and space exploration.

The U.S. Strategic Command currently tracks approximately 23,000 things in orbit, so-called resident space objects. These objects range from the size of a softball to the size of a school bus and are everything from bolts and pieces of exploded satellites to large rockets.

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Unfortunately, these are only the ones we can track. The number of objects that are thought to exist is closer to 500,000, with sizes that go down to a millimeter — think of a speck of paint. However, even something this small can produce significant damage if it collides with something else at a very high speed.

Space shares a few similarities with the Wild West. It’s like what the transcontinental railroad did for opening massive business between our East and West coasts. The Federal Aviation Administration regulates things that go up and come down, but not what stays in orbit.

In other words, there are few — if any — rules in space. No real estate deeds as it were. Any domain that has experienced significant geographical sparsity and is mostly unregulated has been subject to “lawlessness.” This means countries can behave in almost any way desired in space without any consequences, not a recipe for a long-term sustainable and safe space environment.

Couple that with a space renaissance that is going on, given the large amount of wealth to be made from space services, capabilities and activities. For example, great entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin and Amazon) and Elon Musk (SpaceX and Tesla) are among a few who are making access to space much cheaper than before. India also is contributing to that. Last February, India broke the record for launching the largest number of satellites at once: 104. All of this will only continue.

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Without something like environmental protection in space and some global governance for developing norms of “good stewardship” of space activities, we risk seeing whole regions of space become hard, if not impossible, to use freely and cheaply.

Add to that the fact that the space community does not openly share information on where all objects are located for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the organization providing everyone with a free service of collision warnings is the U.S. Strategic Command. Gen. John Hyten, the agency’s commander, has underscored the desire to see the Department of Defense leave the business of “space traffic cop” to some other entity.

To deal with this space trash issue, we should create a public-private partnership composed of government, industry, academia and international partners to focus on space traffic management.

Moreover, lawmakers would be wise to create a NASA Space Situational Awareness Institute — administered by NASA and composed of academic and research institutions such as the University of Texas — to be the scientific and technical frontier to support decision-making processes for current and future civil and commercial space activities. Business leaders should be allowed to invest in and participate in this institute, having first access to results so that they may incorporate these sciences and technologies into their own business models.

A lot has happened since that late evening when the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit 60 years ago. We must be intent to preserve our freedom and ability to use space for the next 60 years and beyond.

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Jah is an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas.

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