There is a lot of junk floating out in space, and it’s a problem we’ve been talking about, in fits and spurts, since the 1960 s.
Amy Webb( @amywebb) is a prof at the NYU Stern School of Business and is the chief executive of the Future Today Institute, a strategic foresight and research group in Washington , D.C.
Space junk was the topic of my middle school futurists’ society challenge. That year, three friends and I mapped the probable timeline and implications of all the broken bits of dead spacecraft and orbital jumble, writing scenarios about how all that garbage would eventually make it difficult to launch new spacecrafts. Our solution: an enormous net, connected to an Earth-based, rocket-powered launching and landing system.
Space junk was the debate topic my senior year of high school, and my teammates expended the year mapping out arguments for all the ways errant satellites could cause space agency turmoil, political upheaval, and human casualties. As a sophomore in college, it was part of my environmental politics class. I wrote a thesis on it. A decade afterwards, when I was living in Japan, a Chinese spacecraft collided with a NASA rocket. The news, and the junk, seemed to be everywhere, following me throughout life.
Space junk rises to the level of our national consciousness only when something–an inactive satellite, busted-up rocket boosters, fragments of manned spacecraft–threatens us back on Earth. We’re talking about it again because, after virtually seven years orbiting Ground, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 tumbled out of its celestial track earlier this month, plunging to ground and scattering debris over hundreds of miles in the South Pacific Ocean.
Space junk is a problem that continues to orbit our collective attention, and within days it will once again circle out of opinion. We’ll ignore the problem to our own detriment. The Federal Aviation Administration is projecting “an unprecedented number” of satellite launches between 2018 and 2020, with some estimates as high as 12,000 during that time period.