Sunday, March 03, 2024

The race to leave space litter

I have written before about Elon Musk's (and others') cavalier strewing of near earth orbit with thousand of satellites. Now, it seems there is a distinct possibility that the process of destroying satellites by forced re-entry into the atmosphere may be affecting our atmosphere, and resurrecting an ozone hole problem that we thought we had fixed.

This comes as Musk's SpaceX company casually mentions that they are deliberately scuppering 100 satellites over the next few months because of a design flaw that may cause them to fail. Now, 100 out of the 5,000 or so SpaceX satellites that are already up there is not a huge number, and it pales into insignificance against the 440 tonnes of meteorites that burn up daily in the atmosphere (who knew THAT?)

But there is just something very wrong with this kind of throwaway attitude to space junk. You'd think we had evolved sufficiently to learn from our past mistakes, and to be a bit more circumspect about what we put into orbit. Those satellites that burn up in the atmosphere don't just disappear, they just get broken up into smaller pieces, similar in some ways to the break up of plastics into equally dangerous micro-plastics here on earth. 

The other option is to move the satellites outwards to what has been labelled the "graveyard orbit", which sounds like an even more suspect solution. I hate to think what, and how much, is floating round the earth out there.

There's a similar glib attitude to what is happening in the Moon, our natural satellite. I was taken aback during the media coverage of the recent spate of unsuccessful Moon landings, to learn just how much stuff we have strewn across the face of that otherwise pristine planetoid. 

Wikipedia estimates there is over 187,400 kg of human "stuff" scattered across the Moon, much of it from those early Apollo missions. But we are still adding to that total, the latest addition being the much-lauded (for some reason) Odysseus privately-funded semi-failed landing. (Why we would celebrate the fact that private, commercial companies are getting in on the space game is beyond me. It's one of the more scary developments I can conceive of.)

We're even starting to leave litter on Mars now

Having made a mess of one planet, we are now starting to mess up others. Have we learned nothing?

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