The conflict between the first and final frontier 

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Humanity has had hopes and dreams that have sent us past the Earth’s atmosphere for almost a century now. Despite what seems like constant progress, increased space travel has lead to a number of issues that could impact our ability to explore space in the future. Photo by NASA on Unsplash.

It took life on Earth 3.5 billion years to evolve to the point where it looked up at the sky and marveled at its potential to harness the future. After all, what separates human beings from any other species is how future oriented we are. Most of our decisions are for the sake of a future to which we are committed or obligated. As our cognitive capabilities and ingenuity exponentially increased over a short period of time, it didn’t take long for us to ponder how our future could evolve beyond our own native planet. Mankind took to space as far out as Earth’s nearest cosmic neighbor in 1969, and we have committed more time, resources and manpower to continue embarking on this quest ever since.  

Unfortunately, the intrinsic hunger of human beings to push the limits of control in the pursuit of exploration is causing us to overlook what we take for granted. Exacerbating the impact of climate change through the use of fossil fuels is a prime example of the repercussions of rapid development laying waste to our planet — even Earth’s orbit has been increasingly littered with our ignorance over the last several decades. Humanity’s triumphant feats from space exploration are shadowed by the wreckage that they leave behind in the wake of these accomplishments. 

In 1978, astrophysicist Donald Kessler made an alarming prediction; space junk could wreck our ability to keep satellites aloft, and could indefinitely prevent any form of future space travel. This phenomenon — rightly known as Kessler Syndrome — describes the density of objects in Low Earth Orbits (LEO) due to space pollution being high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade in which each collision would generate space debris that would increase the likelihood of further collisions.  

Human rocket flight and space exploration produces as many carbon emission as some countries do. This means that despite being part of a branch of science that heavily studies climate change and our atmosphere, astronomy as a science fails to be clean and friendly to the environment. Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash.

Currently, about 27,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters are still in orbit, only 1,900 of which are operational satellites. 700,000 objects larger than a centimeter also remain in orbit, along with an estimated 200,000,000 objects larger than a millimeter. The numbers only get bigger as the objects get smaller, but don’t let size be deceiving. Each individual piece of debris is traveling at 17,500 mph around the Earth, which is approximately 10 times the speed of the average bullet. Any impact from one of these objects could prove catastrophic to a space mission, compromising billions of dollars, the lives of our astronauts and, of course, contributing further to the accumulation of debris. 

The cruel irony of observing the cosmos for the future of humankind is the contribution that it makes to our current climate emergency. A new estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to all ground-and space-based telescopes says the annual carbon footprint of astronomy’s research infrastructure is equivalent to about 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which rivals that of total emissions from individual countries including Croatia, Estonia and Bulgaria. It was scientific research, after all, that helped us discover the human-induced problems of global warming, yet science is contradicting itself by not setting a good example of how we need to react to the systemic climate issues that we face. 

We are taking too many shortcuts to get to the finish line, and it is costing us. The solutions to these existing problems are more than within reach of our capabilities. Surrey Satellite Technologies “RemoveDEBRIS” mission, proposes grabbing decommissioned satellites with a large space net in order to avoid any major collisions, while observatories around the world are considering greener options to power their facilities.  

The problems with these solutions are the lack of incentives that drive them. In a profit oriented world, it is difficult to come up with the funds for cleaning up space debris when there isn’t much revenue to be extracted from such a project. Human nature tends to show us that we are only mildly concerned about the potential for catastrophe, and there doesn’t seem to be a proportional amount of money being spent at getting things back from space compared to putting them up there in the first place. And because burning fossil fuels are much cheaper than greener alternatives today, the eco-friendly transition will take its time before fully coming into fruition. Unfortunately time is the ultimate resource, and we are running out of it.  

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