Is there space for pollution?

Unimaginable advancements in science and technology. A greater understanding of the universe in which we live. The opportunity to experience a surreal version of our deeply earthly reality. Space exploration undoubtedly propels mankind into new and exciting realms of thought and existence. But at what cost are these advancements achieved? What is ultimately left behind in the pursuit of furthering cosmic knowledge? And what are the potential consequences for those of us left behind on earth?

The race to space – or rather the race to establish “future astronauts living and working on Mars” (mars.nasa.gov) – with the landing of the “Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover” on “Thursday 18th February 2021 at 12.55 p.m. PST”, is undeniably compelling (mars.nasa.gov). It allows individuals across the globe to escape the mundane routines of earthly existence and to live vicariously through countless science fiction narratives; narratives which are drawing chillingly close to intersecting with reality. Space exploration is more often than not sensationalised in international news and media, characterised as an adventurous and advantageous pursuit to the stars. What is perhaps not articulated through this characterisation, however, is the waste and pollution left in the wake of such an adventure.

Space debris, or “orbital debris”, is mostly “human-generated objects, such as pieces of space craft, tiny flecks of paint from a spacecraft, parts of rockets, satellites that are no longer working, or explosions of objects in orbit flying around in space at high speeds” entering “low Earth orbit or LEO” (nasa.gov). At the time of the composition of the source cited, there were estimated to be “millions of pieces of space junk flying in LEO”, but, more surprisingly, there were “no international space laws to clean up debris in our LEO” (nasa.gov). This is perhaps partly due to the ambivalent nature of space debris and the liminality which it occupies. It does not belong to any country or nation in particular and requires international cooperation to begin the process of its removal; a process which is itself highly demanding of time and money (nasa.gov).

In addition to this, aside from its polluting impacts on the environment and the earth’s atmosphere, space debris poses a threat to the International Space Station which “manoeuvres at least a couple of times every year to avoid a potentially catastrophic collision with space junk” (Guardian). 

In the aforementioned Guardian article (2017) entitled ‘We’ve left junk everywhere’: why space pollution could be humanity’s next big problem, Professor Craig Smith, “the chief executive and technical director for the Australian aerospace technology company Electro Optic Systems”, states that “It’s a serious issue. We have oceans and rivers, and we pollute them until they become almost unusable. We’ve done exactly the same with space. We’ve left junk everywhere” (Guardian). There are also, as the article highlights, efforts between “The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs” and “NASA and the European Space Agency to develop a set of guidelines on space debris mitigation. Under the guidelines, when an orbital mission is planned, it must include a strategy to remove the spacecraft from the orbit within 25 years” (Guardian).  Efforts which the article goes on to consider through the work of “a space archaeologist with Flinders University in Adelaide, Dr Alice Gorman, [who] says the UN guidelines are voluntary and are followed only in about 40% of all space missions” (Guardian).

Therefore, an underlying question of the subject of this article is whether the advancements in space exploration and technology can be justified at the expense of the earth’s environment and climate system upon which all life and nature is dependent. What will the long-term consequences be of its pursuit? How can the ambition of establishing some form of a future settlement on Mars, for instance, be rationalised with regards to the human suffering and environment degradation occurring in this very moment as a result of the climate crisis? What would be the point in returning with this new-found information if there is no habitable climate and planet in which and on which to live? Do we not need to attain a greater international effort and understanding as to how we can manage the pollution we create here on earth before allowing it to extend beyond our earthly horizons?

Is the pollution caused by space exploration completely justifiable and is there space for pollution?

Featured Image by Lizzy Aiton. 

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