It’s up to governments to declutter space

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The writer is a science commentator

It was a well-intentioned comment, highlighting the need for humanity to be mindful as it continues expanding into the final frontier. “We need a Greta for space,” declared a British official at a New York summit for sustainability in space this summer, in reference to Greta Thunberg, the activist who inspired climate change protests all over the world. “If somebody out there wants to be Greta, please stand up.”

But this plea from Rebecca Evernden, director of space at the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, only emphasises how poorly governments have stewarded the space assets on which so much of modern life, such as global communications, depend. More than six decades of launches have encircled the Earth with a halo of litter that threatens essential satellites and degrades the extraterrestrial environment.

While the US Federal Communications Commission this week penalised Dish Networks $150,000 for failing to responsibly dispose of a defunct broadcast satellite, this marked a first — and the settlement looks pitiful set against Dish’s $16.7bn annual revenue. Beyond the ban on testing nuclear weapons in space, the question of companies’ and governments’ obligations beyond Earth’s orbit remains opaque and non-binding under outer-space treaties.  

That uncertainty now feels negligent given the frenzy of renewed interest, both national and corporate, in space. Any bid to protect the cosmic realm — whether from satellite overcrowding or winner-takes-all lunar mining — requires serious diplomatic and legal negotiation by governments, not a lone voice of protest trilling in a vacuum. Next year’s UN Summit of the Future in Indonesia, due to discuss space governance, should be the focus of a major reset.

As satellites have gone down in price, they have gone up in greater numbers, including large constellations. At the end of their operational lives, many fall naturally into the Earth’s atmosphere where they are burnt up — but too few of those that remain are safely brought down or shunted into “graveyard orbits”. Between Russia’s 1957 launch of Sputnik and 2012, about 150 satellites a year went into space. That rose to 600 in 2019, 1,200 the year after, and nearly 2,500 in 2022. Of about 11,000 satellites placed in orbit, Nasa says, 60 per cent remain but only 35 per cent are operational.

Bits can fall off, creating debris travelling at between about 10 and 15km/s; each fragment can trigger further cascades. That forces active satellites into collision avoidance manoeuvres; the International Space Station has dodged debris more than 30 times. Nations have also blown up their satellites as a warning to rivals.

There is no agreed mechanism for regulating satellite traffic or removing debris, even as countries including Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia create their own space programmes. According to the European Space Agency, “our behaviour appears to be unsustainable in the long term”.

While congested orbits and space debris comprise one set of governance headaches, a growing appetite for cosmic plunder and crewed deep-space exploration raise others. Nasa, China, India and Russia are among those hoping to mine the Moon for precious minerals such as rare earth metals or helium-3, an isotope that can power nuclear reactors without producing waste. There are no agreed rules on lunar extraction.  

As for future crewed exploration, the billionaires whose private aerospace companies now serve national agencies routinely talk of extraterrestrial colonisation. Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX is a Nasa contractor, dreams of a Martian colony housing a million residents and has suggested nuking its ice caps to make it liveable. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns rival Blue Origin, envisages human colonies inside giant spinning metal cylinders floating through space. 

That techno-utopian agenda, which too frequently anchors public discussion of extraterrestrial exploration, was critiqued last year in Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race, by Mary-Jane Rubenstein, professor of religion and science at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She notes the quasi-religious fervour of “astrosaviour” Musk and his devotees: the planet is doomed, cries its richest man, who promises salvation elsewhere for the faithful. 

His is not the only voice that matters. What about the Navajo Nation, who regard other worlds as sacred? We should not be sacrificing a space Greta to social media trolls to argue the toss; we need governments brave enough to make new rules in space that respect and benefit us all.

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