This article originally appeared on Forbes.com Nov. 9, 2022
Space isn’t just the final frontier; it’s the new Wild West. Countries and companies across the globe are in a “land grab” to claim as much space as possible with minimal regard for the long-term safety of the space environment. With no global regulating body to oversee this rush to space, devastating consequences are on the horizon. What Earth needs now is for regulators to step up and preserve space before it’s too late.
Space is becoming a cosmic junkyard
When humans first started exploring space, leaving an old satellite behind didn’t seem like such a big problem. But today, a cosmic junkyard orbits Earth. According to the European Space Agency, there are more than 1 million space debris objects between 1 and 10 cm and 36,500 that are 10 cm and larger. All of that adds up to more than 10,000 metric tons of debris in orbit, and that number is constantly rising.
A smash-up derby in space
Concern about space debris is more than a simple philosophical desire to “leave only footprints.” Space debris is a hazard that is already causing expensive damage to current spacecraft and increasing the cost of new satellites, which need more sophisticated tracking and navigation systems to avoid space debris. Eventually, it may impede our ability to launch satellites through these debris fields and harness the power of space at all.
Even though most pieces of space debris are quite small, they are traveling at about 17,500 miles per hour. At that speed, even a tiny particle can cause massive damage to spacecraft. Multiple windows on the International Space Station have had to be replaced due to damage from paint flecks traveling at high speeds through space. At present, there is no technology that allows spacecraft to detect objects less than 1 cm, and even that can be lethal to a satellite.
What happens when space gets too full?
The more crowded space becomes, the more likely collisions are to occur. Each collision creates exponentially more debris, starting a chain reaction of destruction that could eventually prohibit the launch of new satellites altogether. If our ability to launch new satellites disappears, the effect we’d feel here on terra firma would be devastating. Satellites drive the communication we need every day to live our lives, protect our planet, communicate with each other, grow our food, travel and so much more. We've built a world that depends on satellites to function, so unless we want to go back to the 1950s, citizens of Earth are going to have to find a way to protect the “space” in space.
The space free-for-all must stop
To protect the space near Earth, regulations must be put in place to ensure any country that would like to become a spacefaring nation is able to do so. In addition, those countries licensing satellite services should ensure the satellites they approve are safe and fairly utilize space.
While international space treaties and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs support governments in building legal, political and technical infrastructure for space activities, and the International Telecommunication Union regulates certain activities in geosynchronous orbit, no international governing body exists to make and enforce laws about space activities overall.
Orbital carrying capacity
Countries agreeing to share space, where each has access to a certain amount of space to occupy, could encourage countries to remove their inactive satellites and be more prudent about the types and numbers of satellites they launch.
To divvy up space equitably, science is going to have to figure out Earth’s orbital carrying capacity and allow each country to have its fair share. Orbital carrying capacity is a metric of the volume of satellites and space junk that can safely orbit the Earth without increasing the likelihood of collisions past an acceptable level of risk.
Determining orbital carrying capacity requires taking into account the cross-section of satellites, their mass, and the number of objects in space. Global bodies could start collecting this data as part of their applications so calculations of the amount of space left in space could be made.
The more objects in space, the more likely a collision. The bigger the cross-section of a satellite, the more likely it is to be involved in a collision. And the more massive the object, the more new objects (shrapnel) will be created if there is a collision. All of this gets calculated into a “probability of collision,” and humanity must decide what probability it will accept by balancing the positives of what satellites bring to Earth with the devastating risk of loss of access to space altogether. Once we have an acceptable probability of collision, we can apportion the orbital carrying capacity across nations.
The risks may be acceptable today, but in the near future, without some rules, the probability of collision will likely move to a level unacceptable to everyone except the few companies or countries that might reap substantial financial returns while risking access to space.
Inequality in space must not be allowed to grow
Today, a satellite can be launched into space with a reasonable expectation that it will not be damaged by space debris. As the probability of collision increases, traversing space will become like driving a car through a minefield.
Smaller countries deserve the opportunity to join the space community with their own satellites and space interests, even if they aren’t ready now. But if larger countries fill space past its breaking point, less-developed countries late to the party may never be able to launch their own satellites, further preventing them from catching up with the technological advancements of the rest of the world.
We must protect the endless possibilities of space
The world has worked together to solve countless problems, such as fighting climate change with the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement. We can do it again, and we must if we are to preserve space and all its possibilities for future generations. Nations, industry and academia must call on the international regulatory community to drive change now before it’s too late.