The modern sum of man-made waste has gotten to be out of this world – some of it quite literally.

Kristen Kiluk

According to NASA’s website, more than 21,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters, 500,000 pieces 1 to 10 centimeters, and more 100 million pieces less than 1 centimeter are currently orbiting our planet.

Orbital debris — useless bits of man-made metals, paints, human waste and other random objects introduced by humans into Earth’s orbit — are becoming increasingly dangerous to contemporary space navigation and satellite function. NASA estimates that a piece of debris smaller than half an inch could cause an impact similar to a bowling ball moving at 300 miles per hour if it collided with a satellite or spacecraft.

Though scientists have been aware of the growing galactic garbage mass for decades and many national space programs have instituted policies to monitor its movement and reduce future additions, very little of what’s already out there has been eliminated. A September 2011 report assessment from the National Research Council called upon NASA to develop technologies that actively remove debris from space. It also stated that the amount of orbital debris is approaching a “tipping point,” when so much material will be in orbit that it will continuously collide and multiply.

Most orbital debris originated from satellite collisions. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Satellite Database alone lists more than 900 active commercial and government satellites currently orbiting Earth — and the number is increasing. The 2009 collision of U.S.-sourced Iridium 33 and Russian Kosmos 2251 satellites serves as a prime example of the massive potential for orbital debris generation. This single event accounts for one-third of all catalogued orbital debris.

Though the United States has made great strides in monitoring orbital debris, it needs to step up on its remediation strategies. Last month, Switzerland announced its plans to lead the world in orbital debris removal. The Swiss are currently developing CleanSpace One — endearingly referred to as “the janitor satellite” — a prototype for a line of satellites they’ll send into the cosmos to pick up decommissioned satellites within the next three to five years.

CleanSpace One will be a very small device — only about 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 30 centimeters — and is aiming to offer a relatively inexpensive method for space disposal services. It will travel at 17,400 mile per hour, latch onto its target with its appendages and then fly toward Earth on a kamikaze-like mission, with both masses burning up as they re-enter the atmosphere.

Here’s the catch though — the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the reclamation of any other country’s object in space. This means that the CleanSpace satellites from Switzerland will likely focus on remediation of orbital debris hailing only from Switzerland. In addition to the extensive amount of time it would take to get each space-faring nation to remediate its rubble, there is also great potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding among nations claiming individual space objects as their own property.

I have a feeling that no matter how much pride a nation has in their spacecraft, it’s a bit difficult to differentiate between scraps of metal speeding around the Earth at rates upward of 20,000 miles per hour.

These pieces of junk, though, are a nuisance to all space exploration, no matter who they belong to. This situation represents a tragedy of the commons in which everybody has to take responsibility to tackle the problem.

Though there is no specific international treaty on orbital debris, many leading space agencies have come together through the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee to limit future growth of orbital debris. NASA also reports that the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has discussed orbital debris since 1994.

Though a difficult undertaking, Switzerland’s innovation in the area of orbital debris remediation demonstrates that viable options are surfacing. It’s about time that major space-faring nations get together and clean up their messes — not only to reduce our footprint on the universe but also to allow for the successes of current and future technologies in outer space.

E-mail Kristen at kkiluk@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @Kristen_Kiluk.

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