Space Trash, Space Treasure

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Archive Tape:
“The moment is at hand. The countdown reaches zero.”

Roman Mars:
In 1957, a few months after the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, became the first human object in space, the United States launched Explorer One.

Archive Tape:
“Explorer is in orbit. Broadcasting to the world its coded scientific data, cosmic ray intensity, meteor impact, solar radiation. These are the dry facts that will help carry a man ever farther into the age of space.”

Roman Mars:
And with that, the space race was underway. And the two world powers began launching more and more satellites every year.

Emmett FitzGerald:
A lot of these early missions failed before they ever made it into orbit.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmett Fitzgerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But there were successes and little by little space started to fill up with human-made objects. By the summer of 1961, there were 115 satellites circling the earth. And it was during that summer that the U.S. launched an unmanned rocket carrying the Transit 4A satellite.

Roman Mars:
And about two hours after launch… the rocket blew up.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It was the first known object to unintentionally explode in space and it created about 300 fragments of totally useless space junk. Some of these pieces got pulled into the atmosphere and burned up, but around 200 are still up there today.

Roman Mars:
At the time, most people weren’t all that concerned about a few bits of metal floating around in the vastness of space.

Hugh Lewis:
I think the general feeling was that space was big and that we could put objects, satellites up into space without really having any consequences to that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Hugh Lewis, a space junk expert at the University of Southampton.

Hugh Lewis:
Back in the early days of the space age, it wasn’t seen as a problem.

Emmett FitzGerald:
While the universe may be infinite, orbital space – the region where objects revolve around the earth – is finite and the amount that we use regularly is even more limited. Most satellites end up in a few particular orbits, almost like freeways.

Hugh Lewis:
And the traffic on those freeways is actually quite a lot and that’s where the problems start to emerge.

Roman Mars:
As the traffic increases, so does the chance of collision.

Emmett FitzGerald:
One of the regions of space that got busy pretty quickly is the area called low Earth orbit.

Hugh Lewis:
That’s a region of space that extends up to an altitude of about 2000 kilometers that’s really heavily congested.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And when a satellite stops working in lower orbit, it can stay in that region for hundreds of years. By the mid-1960s, there were already lots of old and defunct satellites floating around up there.

Roman Mars:
And NASA began to look into this.

Hugh Lewis:
They started to really think about the potential issues that space debris, orbital debris might pose in the future, and that was an activity that really led by Don Kessler, who was at NASA at the time.

Donald Kessler:
My name is Don Kessler. I started the Orbital Debris Program at NASA.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Kessler is retired now, but when he got started at NASA, he was studying meteoroids and specifically what happens when two meteoroids collide and break apart into smaller pieces. Eventually, Don Kessler started doing similar research on space junk, or as NASA calls it, orbital debris. Kessler was studying what happens when one piece collides with another and this is what he found.

Donald Kessler:
Every time you have a breakup, you’ve increased the probability of another collision and that eventually just causes the whole population to continue to increase exponentially with time.

Roman Mars:
This idea that space junk multiplies as more and more objects collide and break apart came to be known as the Kessler Syndrome and Kessler predicted that the growth in space junk would eventually snowball.

Donald Kessler:
And that cascading phenomenon after, oh, a hundred years gets to be well out of control. There’s not much you can do about it, and you’ve created an environment that becomes very hazardous to spacecraft.

Emmett FitzGerald:
If the growth in space junk went totally unchecked, Kessler predicted that space could become so filled with debris that it would be difficult to fly a spacecraft without getting hit. Kessler’s findings were discussed throughout the space community. And in 1979, NASA started its Orbital Debris Program to study and monitor space junk and they appointed him to lead it.

Roman Mars:
Around that same time, people began to use space more and more.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Countries all around the world were launching weather satellites, military satellites, communication satellites and amateur radio satellites.

Roman Mars:
And because space isn’t owned by any one government in particular, low Earth orbit began to experience a tragedy of the comments, lots of different countries were leaving trash everywhere, but no one was tidying up.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The amount of junk in space continued to grow throughout the 20th century. But it wasn’t until 2009, long after Donald Kessler had retired, that people really started to take the issue seriously.

News Report:
“Two communication satellites have collided in space around 800 kilometers above Siberia. It’s the first crash-”

Roman Mars:
On February 10th, 2009, the Iridium 33 an active U.S. communications satellite struck a defunct Russian satellite called the Cosmos 2251. It was the first collision between two fully intact satellites and it created thousands of pieces of debris.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Donald Kessler wasn’t surprised. 40 years prior, he had predicted that the first major collision between whole satellites of this size would happen around the new millennium.

Roman Mars:
For most people, the collision made the problem of space junk feel much more urgent.

Hugh Lewis:
So I think that Iridium-Cosmos collision really was a wake-up call and certainly, it sparked a new wave of research and funding even for space debris.

Roman Mars:
That’s Hugh Lewis again.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Lewis says that it’s hard to estimate the total amount of space debris out there, but scientists can track anything larger than 10 centimeters in diameter.

Hugh Lewis:
You’re talking about maybe a population of objects that are softball size or bigger though. There’s about 30,000 objects in orbit at the moment.

Roman Mars:
Everything from small fragments to old rocket bodies, to satellites the size of a bus.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And that’s just the stuff that’s large enough to track. There are potentially millions of millimeter size bits of debris, shards of glass, screws, flecks of paint, and even that tiny stuff can cause real problems when it’s whipping around the earth at up to 17,000 miles per hour.

Hugh Lewis:
Yeah, the object does not need to be big in order to carry a lot of energy and to cause a substantial amount of damage if it were to hit anything.

Roman Mars:
The most vulnerable thing in orbital space is the International Space Station.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which routinely has to make maneuvers to avoid collisions with larger pieces of space debris.

Roman Mars:
The International Space Station is also equipped with expensive heavy-duty shielding to protect it from smaller bits of space junk. Astronaut Tim Peake recently took a picture of a sizable divot in one of the space station windows where a piece of debris penetrated several centimeters into the glass.

Hugh Lewis:
And that’s the constant reminder for the astronauts on the space station. Every time they look out of that window, that’s a recognition of the threat that’s out there.

Roman Mars:
But it’s not just a threat to astronauts. So much of our technology here on earth is dependent on vulnerable satellites.

Hugh Lewis:
Pretty much everyone in the U.K., in the U.S., probably has a smartphone with GPS capability on it. That’s a service that’s provided by spacecraft. And when you think about navigation signals that are used for aircraft that are flying in the sky, it’s everywhere in our daily lives. And not just for convenience. It’s for our safety.

Emmett FitzGerald:
International telephone communication, weather forecasting, keeping track of time in different parts of the world. All of this is dependent on satellites.

Hugh Lewis:
Global banking systems fall down if we lost the signals we get from space.

Roman Mars:
These risks are causing scientists around the world to look into how they can clean up the space environment.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Now, when someone wants to put a new satellite into space, there are UN guidelines that say, you have to come up with a plan to dispose of that satellite within 25 years. There are a couple issues with these guidelines though. One, they’re not being followed by everyone, and two, even if they were more closely adhered to, it might not be enough to make space safe.

Roman Mars:
Because there’s already so much stuff up there and as Donald Kessler discovered, space junk multiplies. Even if we stopped putting any more stuff up there, the number of pieces of junk will continue to grow.

Hugh Lewis:
And then we start to think about, okay, how do we address the problem perhaps a bit more proactively? How do we deal with the stuff that’s already up there?

Roman Mars:
All around the world, engineers are dreaming up ways to remove debris from space. In many cases, by sending it down into earth’s atmosphere to burn up.

Hugh Lewis:
You throw a net over the objects, harpoons have been talked about.

Emmett FitzGerald:
There are proposals for space junk slingshots and solar sails that could carry a piece of junk out of a dangerous orbit.

Hugh Lewis:
Robotic arms, attaching a really long tether to the object to try and bring it down, attaching a solid rocket motor.

Roman Mars:
No matter how you do it, removing an object from space will be expensive and politically complicated, but right now, the European Space Agency is planning a mission to remove one of its derelicts satellites and they’re considering these kinds of ideas.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That mission is scheduled to take place in 2023.

Hugh Lewis:
So we are on the cusp of this type of activity.

Roman Mars:
But even if we found the perfect technology to safely destroy all of the space junk in earth orbit, not everyone is on board.

Alice Gorman:
I completely agree that this is a problem we need to do something about. But I think the way that it’s framed leaves out a really vital factor and that factor is human cultural heritage.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Alice Gorman.

Alice Gorman:
I’m also known as Dr. Space Junk. I’m a senior lecturer in the Department of Archeology at Flinders University and I do research on space archeology, particularly looking at space junk in low Earth orbit.

Emmett FitzGerald:
For much of her career, Alice Gorman, or Dr. Space Junk, researched Aboriginal culture in Australia.

Alice Gorman:
I had been a professional archeologist for many years and I was working on a consulting job in Queensland and looked up at the sky, and realized that some of those points of light were not stars or planets. They were actually human manufactured spacecraft, and some of those bits of stuff were space junk. And that’s kind of what archeologists do. We’re focused on the stuff that people discard, the stuff they throw away, the garbage of humanity.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So while the rest of her colleagues continued digging in the dirt, Gorman turned her attention skyward and began to study the archeology of space.

Roman Mars:
Because amidst the scraps of floating debris are some really remarkable artifacts.

Alice Gorman:
A lot of those things we currently call space junk are actually quite extraordinary objects that have so much to tell us about the early history of the space age. I’ve got a lot of favorites in low Earth orbit. Vanguard 1 is definitely one of them.

Roman Mars:
Launched by the United States in 1958, Vanguard 1 is currently the oldest intact object in space.

Alice Gorman:
This little grapefruit-sized aluminum sphere with four antennas sticking out on the sides. It’s floating around up there along with the most recent satellites, along with technology that’s so incredibly different.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And there are objects in orbit that look nothing like a traditional satellite. Like the Westford Needles.

Roman Mars:
Which were these small copper antennas that were sent into the space in the 1960s.

Alice Gorman:
They were really tiny. So they were only like a centimeter big and the idea was they would form a reflective halo around the earth that radio signals could be bounced from.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Using radio waves for global communication never really took off, but some of the needles are still up there bunched together in little clumps of copper.

Alice Gorman:
So I find them really fascinating and there’s probably a lot more of those kinds of stories and objects out there that tell a story of technology that could have gone in one direction, but it veered off in another one instead.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But Gorman’s all-time favorite piece of space junk might be the Track satellite, which the U.S. Navy launched from Cape Canaveral in 1961.

Alice Gorman:
And it was the first satellite to have a poem in it.

Roman Mars:
Written by a professor of Italian literature at Yale named Thomas Bergen.

Alice Gorman:
And one stanza of the poem is inscribed on one of the instrument panels inside the satellite. So it was kind of already conceived as a cultural object.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And that cultural object is still up there orbiting the earth, about a thousand kilometers up. The poem reads-

Excerpt:
“Fear not immortals. We forgive your faults, and as we come to claim our promised place, aim only to repay the good you gave and warm with human love, the chill of space.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
All of these objects might seem far away and inaccessible, but the day will likely come when we can go and visit them.

Roman Mars:
You can already get to the International Space Station for a cool $20 million and Gorman says that one day, we will be able to fly coach into space.

Alice Gorman:
It’s quite likely that, you know, when it’s an accessible and affordable thing to do, people will go into space and maybe stay at some fancy orbital hotel. And the two things we know from what’s happened already that they will want to do, is take a lot of photographs and have sex. But after a while, that stuff is going to become old hat too.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And what happens when Zero-G sex gets boring?

Roman Mars:
Historical space tours, that’s what.

Alice Gorman:
You might have different kinds of tours. You might say, “Let’s do the amateur satellite tour.” Or you might say, “Let’s do the cold war satellites.” Or you might say, “Let’s go and see all of the satellites that come from my nation’s space agency.” So yeah, I totally think this stuff is going to happen. It’s going to be one of the things people do once we actually have a space tourism industry that people can afford.

Roman Mars:
But the irony is in order to have viable space tourism, we need a safe orbital environment.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so if we don’t find an effective way to clean up some of the junk in space, we might never be able to go and see the good stuff.

Alice Gorman:
And it’s kind of frightening. It’s in the most extreme version of this, having ventured out to the moon and with spacecraft, the voyages beyond the solar system, we would actually be shot back on earth.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So Gorman is all for cleaning up space. She just wants us to think carefully before we destroy something that we might want back.

Roman Mars:
Because she can imagine the archeologists and historians of the future trying to wrap their heads around humanity’s first trips into space.

Alice Gorman:
There will be so many mysteries, so many things that don’t make sense, so many stories that you have a little bit here and a little bit there, and you’re trying to fill in the gaps.

Roman Mars:
And those future archeologists will thank us for leaving some space junk right where it is.

Comments (6)

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  1. Sarah R

    There’s an scifi Anime and Manga series that is about space debris collectors, called Planetes. It’s really good and one of the few things in fiction on this subject. I highly recommend it.

  2. Joseph Dobler

    I just donated $200 to PRX (through employer matching on our giving portal). Wanted to be sure you get credit with your sponsor for the $40K. Love your shows!

  3. Hi, here is Luisa Innocenti, head of ESA’s CleanSpace office, that is working on the mission you mentioned in this week episode. I thank you very much for your attention to our activities. I just wanted to make a small clarification about something you say in the podcast. The UN guidelines state that satellites have to be deorbited 25 years after their end of life, not within 25 years of launch. To make it easier and cheaper (and so more attractive) to comply with this guidelines we are working on innovative solutions such as something called “design for demise”. Whoever is interested in knowing more about this topic and how to keep the space clean for the future generations can visit our blog:http://blogs.esa.int/cleanspace/

  4. Matthew Doolittle

    I love the poem Roman recited, stated to be inscribed on the TRAAC satellite. I couldn’t help but notice a discrepancy in the version recited in the episode and the text version on the Wikipedia page. I prefer Roman’s version, but am so very curious to know which one is actually floating around in orbit right now!

  5. Bob

    Just listened to this – excellent as ever. I consider it a public service to quote from New England by Billy Bragg:

    I saw two shooting stars last night,
    I wished on them, but they were only satellites.
    It’s wrong to wish on space hardware;
    I wish, I wish, I wish you cared.

    The full song is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCfRcgoPxTw

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