- The world is in the golden age of space with the rise of commercial space flights for civilians.
- With the increase in the number of such missions to space, there is a concurrent increase in the amount of space junk.
- This space junk is harmful to the health of humans and also to communication services and space exploration.
The era of the “space race”
The world has indeed entered into the golden age of space. With an unprecedented boom in the space sector, the possibilities seem endless. But as every ancient proverb rings true, this coin also bears two sides. While the advancements made are indeed commendable, the greater concern hovering over our heads is the lucrative advent of the term “space race” and consequently its aftermath.
Global media was plagued with the overwhelming coverage of billionaires, the likes of Amazon Ex-CEO Jeff Bezos and British business magnate Sir Richard Branson embarking on novel space flights. These gentlemen made their respective journeys on very proximal dates, thus triggering the prolific headline, “billionaires space race”. Their actions opened doors to the rise of commercial space flights, allowing untrained civilians to realise their dream of going to space, even though, whether and when the common public will get a taste of the same remains questionable.
Not lagging behind his counterparts, Elon Musk, the American entrepreneur and the world’s richest man did very well throwing his hat in the ring, courtesy of his space exploration company, SpaceX. SpaceX went down in history with the Inspiration4 mission. A first of its kind, this mission allowed four untrained civilians to traverse space. The members aboard the Dragon Resilience Capsule orbited Earth for three days before splashing down into the Pacific. This effort was undertaken as part of charity towards the St. Judes Children’s Hospital and Research Centre.
But now comes the concerning chapter in this fairy tale of progress and milestones achieved in the space sector in the 21st century, the “burning” question of space pollution.
Space pollution and its rise
Ever since the USSR launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, space has become increasingly crowded. According to statistics given by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), there are around 4,852 active satellites currently in orbit and more than 3,000 inactive orbiters above our heads. In addition to defunct pieces of spacecraft, including discarded rocket stages, fragmented hardware and even paint flecks, the term “space junk” is now more relevant than ever.
Such an unprecedented rise in space junk can create nuisance in many fields. On Earth, we are dependent on space for defence, IT and telecom solutions which also provide the most significant revenue opportunities. In particular, satellite broadband internet can be morbidly affected if space pollution remains uncontrolled. Astronomers also intercept rising problems in the field of exploration. Navigation, weather and national security warnings, and climate and environmental monitoring all will be equally affected.
The aftereffect of space junk doesn’t simply transcend into the sky but it rather affects the health of humans on Earth directly as well. Studies have found that increased launch of rockets from commercial space companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX could have a significant cumulative effect on the climate. The major reason behind this detrimental effect is the number of carbon gases and nitrogen oxides that would be produced with every such launch. According to the standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – The number of nitrogen oxides which is released by an ascending rocket into two cubic kilometres of atmospheric air was found to be very hazardous to human health.
The overlooked solutions
The number of missions on the waitlist for launch keeps on climbing with Musk tweeting about his plan to launch 60 rockets in 2022, Blue Origin planning its fifth commercial flight and Virgin Galactic planning to ramp up tourist flights to send customers to space three times per month with its reusable rocket. All the while the issue of space pollution and its hazards remains unacknowledged.
Scientists believe there should be more focus on the future design of the rockets. They should be fueled by highly efficient and clean liquid oxygen and hydrogen, the only byproduct being water vapour with no carbon emissions. Meanwhile, efforts to clean up existing space junk should be made more rampant. An excellent venture is the Japanese startup Astroscale and its End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) technology, which allows artificial objects to be serviced and space debris to be removed from low-Earth orbits (LEO).