T minus 15 minutes left for the pièce de résistance of the Soviet space program to soar the skies. History was about to be made with the launch of Sputnik I, as what would come to be known as greater Russia today, braced itself for all the praise galore. 86.3 kgs of aluminum alloy, cocooned in a launch vehicle set to defy the odds of gravity, an ode to the Newtons and Einsteins of that era was the first of many such propulsions that the world was due to witness in the years to come. Much has been written, spoken, and narrated about the glorious space endeavors of the superpower nations, placing satellites and reconnaissance vehicles in the lower earth orbit with every iteration, however, there’s always another side to every coin that gets flipped. On the flip side, this story shall impose gravity on how the depredations in outer space have put the orbit in a vulnerable position, so much so that imminent corrective action is of dire immediacy. Ironically as big and blown up as the problem sounds, it stems from something so small, the little remnants from these expeditions that reserve their right to the orbit, otherwise more commonly known as space debris.
They say brevity is the soul of wit but I believe the actual saying should have been brevity is the soul of grit. The textbook definition of space debris would call it ” defunct human-made particles left in space” but a simpler way to put things into perspective is to call it gritty space junk. Space debris isn’t an alien concept to science however its threat hasn’t been quite understood completely until very recently. The phrase, ‘let’s break it down to simpler terms’ couldn’t be better explained than through a space debris simile as that’s quite literally the case up there. It seems quite non-intuitive at first glance that space debris would be a measurable threat to expeditions, however, physics provides us an answer to that presupposition. Amongst the many things that Isaac Newton found to make my high school that much harder yet interesting was the concept of momentum. Momentum makes these seemingly harmless small specks of rocket leftovers lethal. Kessler gives us a much more detailed exposition of this problem.
The Kessler syndrome, almost as ailing as the name sounds, is in layman theory a space disease. The theory predicts that space debris almost certainly obeys the by-laws of geometric progression while colliding with members akin. Simply put, this sets off a cascade of swift faceoffs between these particles, making them disintegrate into numerous pieces and follow suit. The gravity of the problem was highlighted specifically in the movie ‘Gravity’ where the screenplay revolved around a life threatening space adventure. Scientists remark that these particles can travel at insanely high orbital velocities, that what they lack in mass, they graphically recompense through their momentum. Why is this a problem?
Space travel for as long as humanity has known has been a luxury for nations launching rockets trying to explore the nooks and corners of celestial entities. Even today the major space-faring nations acknowledge that space pollution is a necessary evil that they need to take into consideration while expediting research activities. The problem, however, isn’t only limited to science but shares an equal stake in economics. Needless to say that the lower earth orbit is being rendered increasingly unusable by this debris and there is an imminent need to initiate debris clearing procedures. A bit of game theory would quickly make us understand this is indeed the case of ‘the tragedy of the commons’, a situation where individuals end up acting in self-interest and do not play the game at the end. Analogically, states do not want to initiate debris clean up launches to high first costs and arguably low dividends, however, the situation isn’t getting any better in space. This leads us to the bewildering conclusion that space will be bereft of its economic potency before it loses its resourcefulness. In other words, this is bad news for all of us who rely on satellite-based services for day to day information, which unfortunately happens to be a large number of people.
So what is the solution? Well, there is no one-stop-shop solution when it comes to outer space mitigation. We need to acknowledge that space exploration is equally as imperative to sustain technological as well as defensive development as quelling space pollution is. Resorting to more durable chassis structures, reducing rocket payload, shifting to space conducive fuel alternatives might tip the scales in favor of the pro-conservation narrative. Over and above this, there is a general sense of agreement that is needed between international and national agencies to put global good over their incidental gains so that there is a collective and concerted effort to protect the commonwealth. Space is being consumed by its own remains as we speak, but there is time, right. Right?