Space Debris Cleanup: We’ve polluted the Earth, now space too?

It is quite troubling to think that there is an enormous amount of human-generated waste just floating about in the space (I mean it’s bad enough that we’ve polluted the Earth this much already, but now space too?). These particles in space pose a big risk to space projects — if not presently, in the future.

space debris junk cleanup
Credit: MIT News

Space debris is an essential part of space exploration that is seldom discussed despite its far-reaching effects.

It is quite troubling to think that there is an enormous amount of human-generated waste just floating about in the orbit. (I mean it’s bad enough that we’ve polluted the Earth this much already, but now space too?). These particles in space pose a big risk to space projects if not presently, in the future.

Many space agencies across the world have worked to clean up space debris and vastly reduce, if not eliminate, the amount of space debris we create. We’ve seen SpaceX create reusable rockets, which is still an impressive feat till today. And many agencies are careful in their exploration to prevent collisions between satellites and other objects in the space. Even the International Space Station (ISS) regularly avoids collisions with debris that could damage it while orbiting the Earth.

While most of these efforts have been preemptive, there has not been a lot of effort to fix the existing problem. And as a result, there is a lot of space debris we haven’t figured how to clean up. About 60% of the nearly 6,000 satellites in the orbit are not working, thereby amounting to space junk.

Right now, there are nearly 6,000 satellites circling our tiny planet. About 60% of those are defunct satellites—space junk—and roughly 40% are operational.

How is African cleaning up its space debris?

In all of these, what is Africa’s position in dealing with this problem? And how does the continent plans and decisions affect the rest of the world, if at all? Noting that Africa has one of the most underdeveloped continental space programmes. With a population of over 1.2 billion, Africa has launched 41 satellites since 1999. There is also a pan-African effort of space exploration with the establishment of African Space Agency (ASA) in 2017.

The African space industry is worth over $7 billion. As more rockets, satellites and space exploration are done, it would inevitably face more challenges including space debris. However, since it is still in its infancy, Africa can innovate efficient, cost-effective ways to deal with the challenge of space debris.

Globally, very little is being done to clean up the junk in space. Even big corporation and space agencies don’t have a solid system for eliminating debris. Currently, much of space cleaning is done by the Earth’s gravity which drags in debris close to it. This debris is then disintegrated upon reentry into the atmosphere. The problem with this tactic is: A lot of debris is far from Earth’s gravity. And they could remain in the orbit for many years.

The increasing space debris menace is necessarily not as a result of negligence. According to the United Nations, satellites should be brought back to the earth after 25 years in the orbit. But there are no space missions dedicated to removing junks from space. Most of the options currently available are only as effective as blowing up debris in the space with rockets. Although it is effective for removing satellite, it is not a smart idea.

There are a few plausible ideas for cleaning space debris, albeit expensive. Many of them are still being worked on and have not been successfully executed even on a small scale. The feasibility of these plans is an important part of the conversation, too. Price is also important, particularly for African space agencies who have limited funding.

Cleaning up space junk is difficult

One of the few ideas that is easy to execute and cost-efficient is the use of nets. Now, this might sound odd. But nets can be launched to drag space debris into the Earth’s atmosphere. The United States Defense Advanced Research Project Agency is investing in a space vehicle that would deploy nets to grab debris and push them towards the Earth. The vehicle is called the Electrodynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE) and it’s equipped with 200 nets.

Another idea that seems to show promise is the use of lasers. Now, this is pretty cool. And as a bonus we could pretend to be Starfleet from Star Trek shooting down alien threats. The use of lasers to heat pieces of space debris is practicable and would not require the invention of new technology. But it would still take a considerable amount of time to effectively tailor laser technology for this purpose. This idea also loses its appeal when it comes down to cost it is extremely expensive.

Other ideas for cleaning up space debris include the use of water walls, pods that collect debris and bring them back to the Earth, and even the use of the hazardous tungsten dust. There are, of course, a host of other ideas and room for further innovation in addressing the problem of space debris. It would be interesting to know what ideas African space programmes apply.

Another issue that should be discussed regarding cleaning up of space debris is international cooperation to develop a working system. As previously stated, Africa has a budding sense of unity when it comes to developing space programmes and projects. With the newly-established ASA, African countries can contribute resources, talent and technology to improve space-targeted programmes on the continent. But the differences among African nations could be a hinderance.

This problem could be solved by drafting legislation that would adequately ensure national interests don’t affect the collective interest of space agencies. International cooperation from outside the continent is also needed. Ideas and help from agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) would be of great help to the growing ASA.

While Africa’s space programmes are relatively young, having effective, low-cost space debris cleaning solutions developed and executed by it isn’t outlandish. It may take a while, but with Africa’s determination to develop, and effort and research of global space programmes Africa could match global standards in the race to remove debris from space.

This article is a guest contribution from Olaoluwa Jaiyeola, a 21-year-old law student at the University of Ilorin. He’s a big fan of astronomy, chess, animals and books.



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