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Space and Sustainability

Since the first launch of a man-made spacecraft in 1957 with the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, humans have forged a relationship with space that is ever evolving, and certainly not without its complications.

It is hard for us to explore space solely for peaceful and educational purposes when space itself is becoming crowded as a result of human activity, not to mention proliferated by military equipment that could very well increase conflict on home turf.

There now exist several bodies, such as Secure World Foundation as well as space agency projects, that seek to protect space from detrimental human impact as well as ensure that our own planet does not suffer because of space exploration.

How much does human activity affect space?

Surprisingly, the Cold War has played a crucial role in our understanding of how human activity can set off perturbations in the magnetic system. Tests run by the US and USSR from the late fifties to the early sixties revealed that human activity can negatively impact space weather. Some of the Cold War testing was centred around the creation of artificial radiation belts which were powerful enough to cause high-flying satellites to fail entirely. Fortunately, no such tests, or nuclear tests of this magnitude, are carried out anymore.

Mushroom cloud over water formed from a nuclear blast

It is a rarity for human behaviour to have a broadly beneficial impact on our environment. However, very low-frequency radio communications, or VLFs, that are used in submarines have been shown to form a protective barrier to shield Earth from high-energy particle radiation coming from space. VLFs have effectively formed a bubble around our planet. They may even be the answer to reducing excess radiation in our atmosphere.

Diagram of Earths magnetic field

One way that humans affect space is through space exploration. Whilst we may have gathered incredible data from our jaunts to the wider cosmos, discovering new planets, and furthering our understanding of the conditions surrounding the big bang for instance, we’ve undoubtedly produced a fair amount of rubbish along the way. This rubbish is known as space junk.

What is space junk?

Wherever humans may go, rubbish will follow. Unsurprisingly, space junk (an object in low Earth orbit, or LEO, that does not now, or in the foreseeable future, have a use) is a growing problem affecting outer space. According to the European Space Agency’s August 2022 report, there are 30,000 pieces of space junk in orbit, including both man-made and natural pieces (i.e. meteoroids) that are larger than 10cm.

Paint flecks, retired rockets, broken satellites, a manhole cover from the 50s, and the combusted remains of Laika, the Soviet space dog. These are merely items that have been recorded and tracked. Even smaller pieces, or micro-junk, are floating around en masse, somewhere in the region of several million going by current predictions.

Space junk from a disintergrated satelite floating through space above Earth

You might estimate that the greatest threat posed by space junk is to life on Earth. There have been reports of a, thankfully unharmed, woman in Oklahoma being hit on the head by a charred material fragment from a Delta II rocket booster, chunks of metal and wire landing in the Rio Negro District of Brazil, as well as 6kgs of debris from the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory that now sits somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

Fortunately, no one has been killed from a fallen piece of space junk. The most likely form of impact is with other spacecraft, although these are increasingly manned. Even in low Earth orbit, space debris can reach speeds of up to 17,000 mph. If there is a collision with a spacecraft, the consequences could be catastrophic. Fortunately, the ISS has created software to instigate timely debris avoidance manoeuvres of their craft. Whilst only 30 manoeuvres have been deployed since 1999, the ISS has good reason to proceed with caution. In 2009, two satellites (the defunct Russian military satellite, Kosmos-2251, and Iridium 33) crashed into one another, producing 1,800 pieces of trackable space junk that are still swilling about the cosmos like aluminium minestrone.

How can space junk be reduced?

There are numerous plans in action to reduce the proliferation of space junk. One way is a conscious effort, backed by NASA and other space agencies, to minimise the release of mission-related objects, i.e clamps, pyrotechnic release hardware, lens covers, and wraparound cables.

According to National Academies Press, “[fragmentation] debris makes up 42% of the catalogued space object population and probably a much larger fraction of the uncataloged population.” As such, the physical integrity of rockets and spacecraft needs safeguarding to ensure explosions are kept to a minimum. One such method is dissipating the stored energy of a craft at the end of it’s functional lifetime via battery management systems.

Future spacecraft are also being designed with autonomous deorbiting functionality to ensure less space junk circulates in low Earth orbit, though this is an area that needs plenty of development.

Fortunately, a conscious effort to make space exploration more environmentally friendly is in full swing, but naturally, accidents do occur and at present, our methods are far from fail-safe.

World Space Week 2022

Space and sustainability is the theme for this year’s World Space Week (running from October 4th- October 10th). World Space Week is celebrated in over 90 countries, with the aim of strengthening society’s relationship with space through education, discussion, and participation.

This year, numerous events are being held across the globe in association with the themed week, for instance, London is hosting a New Scientist event with talks on this year’s theme, Armagh Observatory and Planetarium in Ireland is running a planetarium show from the 5th to the 7th, and close to SIS headquarters, the Magna Centre in Rotherham is putting on a series of family workshops throughout the week. Will you be doing anything special for world space week?

Sent Into Space: what’s our environmental impact?

Sent into Space can confidently say that we do not contribute to space junk. We also have a faultless track record of craft recovery and the little remains that can result from our space-bound endeavours (tiny scraps of fallen biodegradable latex which actually serve to enrich soil) surprisingly improve conditions here on Earth. Not only is our entire launch vehicle reused after use, but we also utilise the renewable gas hydrogen for our balloons, and our digital-first policy ensures that we barely contribute to deforestation.

All electronic devices onboard each spacecraft are powered using rechargeable sources. The tracking devices onboard are craft bare no impact on the wider regions of space. In fact, the telemetry systems we employ contribute to GPS satellites’ myriad environmental benefits, i.e. lowering carbon emissions, reducing waste, and improving vehicle safety.

We comply with all relevant environmental legislation, regulations, and codes of conduct, and are always looking for ways to find the most environmentally-friendly solution to a given situation. For us, the future is a green one.

One of Sent Into Space's spacecraft in space looking down at the Earth


Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence

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