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Trash: The most dangerous thing in space…other than aliens

 

“We will not go quietly into the night. We will not give up without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive…,” says President Thomas J. Whitmore in the 1996 classic, Independence Day during his inspirational speech about defending Earth against alien invaders bent on world destruction. While this fictional alien attack is frightening in the movies, a more terrifying reality is looming: the threat of space debris.

On Earth, humans have been putting trash in landfills since the Roman Era. Gravity keeps that trash on the Earth, instead of floating around haphazardly. But in space, as you can imagine, it’s a completely different story.

Humans have been leaving trash in outer space since 1957, and unlike Earth, there is no gravity to hold it in place. Instead, NASA estimates potentially millions of pieces of trash or ‘space debris’ are floating in low-earth orbit at speeds of roughly 18,000 mph. This includes objects as large as old satellites and rocket pieces, to tiny flecks of paint. In fact, these paint flecks have become so hazardous that they are causing windows to crack on space stations and astronauts to take cover when large pieces fly by.

In short, human litter is causing catastrophic collisions in space, and each collision only breaks apart more fragments of whirling debris.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big deal if we didn’t rely heavily on satellites for the internet, cell phones, navigation, weather patterns and more (not to mention monitoring for potential alien invaders). So, what are we doing about space debris?

Well, this year testing is underway internationally from both public and private sectors to find solutions for picking up this space trash and reducing its generation altogether.

In fact, NASA and the Surrey Space Station in the UK are leaders in the public domain, while private companies such as SpaceX, founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk; Blue Origin, established by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; Virgin Galactic, headed up by entrepreneur Richard Branson, are working on designs to either remove debris or create reusable spacecraft that won’t leave waste behind.

With no intergalactic waste companies available to collect the waste that is generated, some other inventive solutions developed so far include the use of nets, harpoons and sails to capture the litter and drag it into the Earth’s atmosphere where it would burn up and disintegrate.

So, while fending off alien invasions may be exciting from a cinematic perspective, there are some pretty exciting and important efforts underway in the real world to tackle more immediate outer space issues. It’s no longer just enough to think about how trash impacts our resources on Earth. Now, we need to start solving issues beyond our atmosphere. Fortunately for us, we have some of the world’s greatest innovators already up for the task.

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