Space: A bin that never gets full?

Written by Chris Styles and contribution from Dr Ing Marc Anthony Azzopardi 

Looking up into the emptiness of space at night can leave me in a bit of trance. I do not think the average human mind is very good at comprehending the vastness of it all. But humans are pioneers and nothing will stop certain people reaching out across the void. The narrative of this journey was for a long time steeped in a colonial pissing contest, a space race to the finish line to plant a flag and claim the spoils (even if it was merely for boosting a nation’s ego). But this begs the question “who owns space?”. Does planting a flag suffice? thankfully not. Currently, it is owned by everyone (and no one). It is the “Common Heritage of Mankind”, the people who are alive today are merely stewards of this shared resource, ensuring it is passed on throughout time, which sounds nice, if not leaving a little bit of a moral grey area. 

There are some laws and statutes which attempt to rectify space rules into our common laws. The Moon Treaty (1979) stated that no one can claim any part of the space as their own, however, this was only signed by 11 state governments. The more widely agreed upon legislation is the Outer Space Treaty (1967), signed or ratified by 129 nations, stating that outer space cannot be owned on a national level, so no country can be said to own any of space, failing to mention what happens if a privateer (a company or an individual) claims ownership. 

Theoretically, I could buy a plot of lunar land and declare myself “Lord of the Moon”; there are plenty of websites willing to print you off a certificate and take your money. However, with no way of staking your claim and no way of policing such things, there is little legal precedence or necessity for such, for now, as arguably most lawmakers may see very little validity in your certificate (sorry!). However, a little closer to home, this is not the case. Above our heads, zooming across the sky, there are approximately 4,987 artificial satellites orbiting Earth (number correct as from January 2019, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs -UNOOSA). However, there is a risk that this number may soon shoot up drastically, with companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink project proposing to launch 12,000 micro-satellites into low orbit (around 1150 km above the earth surface) into a constellation, with the hope of creating a cheap and reliable communication network. Although Musk’s ideas usually have a somewhat noble intent, he has been reported on multiple occasions for seeming to care more about a cool idea, without giving too much thought to the wider implications of such developments (Such as the logistics of Musk’s Hyperloop), and admittedly SpaceX is not the only company planning on colonising nearer space, Amazon has also proposed launching 3200 satellites in the hope of creating its own internet service. It should be noted that these devices will be much smaller than what you are probably imagining, these will be what are called “Micro-Satellites”, with a mass of around 100 to 500 kilograms, so they are relatively small but need to work in conjunction with a small army of other micro-satellites. 

The first thing I thought of when I read this was “are these companies allowed to dominate the skies?”, it turns out, yes, technically. Earth orbits are allocated (free of charge) by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an office of the United Nations, and although not all 12,000 orbits have been designated as this is being done in stages, rather than the entirety wholesale, SpaceX launched its sixth batch of 60 satellites on the 18 March 2020. bringing the total number of Starlink satellites up to 362, with that number expected to increase rapidly in the near future.

So what’s the problem? What concerns should we have down here? Well depending on your viewpoint they could be from sort of minor, to pretty major, to maybe even existential. 

Starlink satellites stream over CTIO in Chile NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory CTIO

In the short to medium term, astronomers have been pretty vocal about the deployment of such a vast number of these kinds of satellites. Observations made by terrestrial telescopes have been degraded by bright streaks. These microsatellites are far more reflective than originally thought, increasing the amount of light entering the lens, and over-exposing the pictures, washing away any fine detail the astronomers are trying to determine from the deep space. You may be familiar with the term light pollution, that perpetual twilight, haze, hanging over urban centers, obscuring your view of the night sky.  These satellites may cause a similar problem, perhaps not as stark in contrast, but creating a ubiquity of obscurance. With 12,000 satellites flying over our heads, there will be the risk of not being able to point a telescope upwards anywhere from the Earth’s surface, without seeing the light of multiple satellites obscuring your view, the vast domination of our sky which is demonstrated in the video below.

Another potential issue is the stuff left behind, the space trash, something the human race just can’t seem to get a handle on. There is a lot of space… out in space… and while it may seem like “a bin that never gets full”, the density of all the stuff we have put into space, is pretty close to us, figuratively “shitting where we are eating”. There is a Goldilocks zone of the stratosphere, where satellites can maintain a stable orbit and also where air resistance is negligible which is getting very crowded. Theoretically, old satellites and fuel tanks from rocket launches, etc should slowly lose momentum and fall back to Earth to be burnt up by the atmosphere, but this can be a very slow process, and the majority of this stuff is still there. Some of it is massive, but the majority is so small that it is untraceable by us. So, the more objects we put into these orbits, the greater the likelihood of a small bump happening. However, this small collision could have a devastating knock-on effect, like the slowest and saddest Rube Goldberg machine. If such an event did occur, the debris from this crash could produce a scatter-shot of shrapnel, zooming around at speeds of up to 30,000 km/sec, a wall of superfast bullets with little to slow them down. If one of these were to hit another satellite, this could start a collision cascade, with more objects getting destroyed, producing more debris and moving on to the next object. This could eventually result in all of our satellite infrastructure being destroyed and sending us back to a dark age of technology.  The resulting wall of rubbish left in the debris field could also mean that launching any type of rocket from the surface of Earth may become impossible, effectively trapping us on this astral plane, known as the Kessler syndrome.   

SpaceX now says that it intends to operate the majority of the constellation at a lower orbit of 550 km, citing communications latency as their main motivation. This appears to be the right choice for the wrong reason, as such a reduction in orbital height would drastically reduce the orbital life of the satellites from millennia to a mere five years, assuming no collisions. However, this is of no solace for the astronomers, since the satellites will likely be replaced as fast they are deorbiting in order to maintain the level of internet service that Musk has in mind. Musk has recently stated that he is “fixing” the issue of brightness by altering the angle of solar panels on the satellites and affixing sunshades to later models, although it still remains to be seen if this is enough to save the view of our night sky.

There is a concept called “the tragedy of the commons”; the idea that if all of us share a resource that we all depend upon it should be treated with care by all of us. If an individual starts taking more than what is fair and sustainable, there is a race to the bottom, where everyone starts taking more and more in fear of being left without, until the resource has been totally spent, leaving everyone with nothing. Although not as apt a comparison as I first thought when I started this article, I think it still bears some relevance here. The sky above us and what lies beyond is a gift to us all, and even if for a supposedly beneficial reason, should this exploitation be allowed and are we all willing to take the risks that it entails?      

Dr Ing Marc Anthony Azzopardi

“However, it is not all doom and gloom”, says Dr Ing Marc Anthony Azzopardi (Engineer at the University of Malta). 

There are other ways of exploiting the great potential of the space around us without overburdening future generations with our own accumulation of trash.

Sustainability is the driving motivation of a team of space engineers working at the University of Malta that seek to address the growing space-junk problem with a two-pronged approach: 

Launch less stuff that stays up in orbit for a much shorter time.

The approach is quite intuitive. By drastically reducing the size, mass and power-consumption of each satellite in these constellations, from hundreds of kg to hundreds of grams, and by removing the need for large solar panels, the effect on astronomers is greatly mitigated. The likelihood of inter-satellite collision is also reduced to negligible levels, but there is an even greater benefit: A thousand-fold reduction in size brings with it an equivalent reduction in costs, which makes it possible to treat these tiny satellites as “disposable”. One can realistically consider orbital heights as low as 300 km which would reduce the natural orbital life of a satellite to a mere 100 days. 

This may appear too short for many missions and projects, but we are also working on very promising technology that will propel satellites electrically and thus keep them in orbit for as long as necessary, but only as long as necessary. Once a satellite malfunctions or is no longer needed, it will automatically de-orbit in a matter of months, thereby completely avoiding a dangerous accumulation of space debris.

There are also proposed ideas to create a troupe of space trash collectors. The European Space Agency (ESA) commissioned its first collector, ClearSpace-1, in 2019, with the hope of a launch in 2025. However the efficacy of these systems is still unsure, and sending up trash-collecting satellites may, unfortunately, become part of the problem rather than the solution to this issue.

The research in sustainable space exploitation is ongoing and the results are promising. Alas, sustainability is little more than an inconvenient afterthought for those with an urgent commercial intent, and here some people may continue to disregard the concerns of astronomers and future astronauts. “High speed, cheap internet for all” may be worth the cost of not being able to peer out into space. It is arguable that we should be concerned with the issues we have here on Earth rather than focusing our attention into the void of space and that the chance of a Kessler syndrome type event happening is an acceptable risk which we can all roll the dice on. We make such choices every day, and it’s worked out for us so far (arguably).

What impact would this have on our future development as a species? I feel it would be a great loss if we have a future of not being able to look up at the stars and wonder “what’s out there beyond us?” cutting off a universe of opportunity to the generations ahead of us with the final frontier locked away to us all, would be the final tragedy of the commons. But perhaps we get what we deserve, after being given our first test planet, we have shown we cannot be trusted with nice things. We have made this bed; we must lie in it forever.   

Thank you to Dr Ing Marc Anthony Azzopardi from the University of Malta for his contribution, to hear more about his work on pico-satellites listen to his episode of the ReThink podcast-

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