Space Junk, Politicians, and Wasted Money.

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The threat of space junk is growing, according to some American lawmakers, and it has the potential to create a telecommunications disaster not unlike the one seen in the Sandra Bullock and George Clooney film “Gravity”. In the film, disaster strikes when the destruction of a satellite in orbit produces a chain reaction in which debris from the destruction of the first satellite produces more debris and even more collisions, knocking out numerous satellites and disrupting communications across the globe. As Clooney’s character says in the film: “Half of North America just lost their Facebook.”

As Space.com reports:

While the plot of the hit Hollywood film “Gravity” is fictional, the United States must bolster efforts to address the alarming amount of space junk surrounding Earth, or risk potentially catastrophic collisions in orbit, lawmakers said today (May 9). Such real-life accidents could resemble the horrifying destruction depicted in the movie, they said.

Within the Department of Defense, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC-Space) currently tracks 23,000 objects in low-Earth orbit. NASA officials have estimated that roughly 500,000 pieces of space junk larger than a marble circle the planet, and there could be more than 100 million tiny fragments, some as small as flecks of paint, that race around Earth at blistering speeds of 17,500 mph (28,000 km/h).

Currently, the Department of Defense oversees surveillance of space as part of its national defense duties, yet with civil agencies, private companies and commercial space travelers all potentially sharing the space environment in the near future, it may be time to re-examine the policing of this increasingly congested orbital region, said Brian Weeden, a technical advisor with the Secure World Foundation, an organization dedicated to the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space.

…To avoid any Hollywood-type disasters in space, the government must act soon, [Weeden] said.

“The continued expansion in the number of space actors [and the] the type of space activities has created a complex space environment,” Weeden said. “It is vitally important for the U.S. government to design an approach to stay abreast of this ongoing change.”

The aforementioned disaster is known as the “Kessler Effect”. It is named for former NASA scientist David J. Kessler, who first described his prediction of such an event in 1978. This is a serious threat. These pieces of junk are traveling over 17,000mph. This makes even the tiniest speck into a screaming angel of death. No piece of equipment will withstand being struck by a 17,000mph marble.

There are only a few things in life that I consider inevitable. The Kessler Effect is one of them. I would be willing to wager a lot of money that the scenario seen in Gravity will eventually come to pass, and probably sooner than later. Read up on space junk; the cleanliness of low-earth orbit is absolutely atrocious. It is littered with junk. It gets worse every year. Statistically, this seems inevitable to me.

Lawmakers say the problem can be avoided if the government acts soon. My response to those lawmakers: It’s too late, you idiots.

This is one of the standby government phrases: “We can avoid problem X… if we act now! This phraseology is usually applied to Social Security and Medicare. Most politicians have some inkling that these programs are totally screwed up. Every year, they say that these programs can be fixed “if we act now.” They’ve been saying this for 30 years. The time to act was 30 years ago. Nobody did anything. Meanwhile, the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare have ballooned to over $200 trillion, and still lawmakers say they can be salvaged “if we act now”. It’s too late to act now. These liabilities cannot be realistically met. Some generation of people on the receiving end of these programs is going to get hosed, because the funding ain’t there.

Thus it is with space junk. “We must act now!” How, pray tell, are they supposed to do anything about this? There are over 500,000 pieces of junk floating around up there; and that only counts what they’re sure of. There’s probably even more that has yet to be identified. When collisions begin, the number will multiply very quickly. These pieces of junk zoom around at 17,000mph; it’s not space junk, its space shrapnel. They don’t have the technology or the means to clean this stuff up. By “they”, I mean any and every world government.

There is a government boondoggle in the works called the “Space Fence”. Contrary to its name, it’s not a fence; it’s just a high-resolution radar network designed to track space junk. This thing will cost over $6 billion of taxpayer funds, at least. To what point and purpose? So that some schmoe can stare at a computer screen and raise his hand for attention when the collisions begin? It’s a waste. It doesn’t help anything. The only people happy about it are the politicians who get to pretend like they’re forward-thinking prophets, and the defense contractors who will rake in billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to build it.

This situation is a classic example of The Tragedy of the Commons. Nobody has property rights in space. According to international precedent, outer space is supposed to remain “free and open for all” or whatever. While this sounds feel-goody and wonderful, it’s the very reason why we have this problem in the first place. It’s why there are garbage islands floating around in the Pacific. It’s why roommates can’t share a communal pantry without major arguments coming to fruition. When people are not given direct ownership and stewardship of a resource, then that resource quickly deteriorates because nobody generally cares about what happens to it beyond their own short-term use. It doesn’t belong to them. Why should they care if the resource is abused? That’s for the next chump to deal with.

The time to “act now” was years ago. “Space Fence” boondoggles are a waste of money. Moving forward, there are steps that could be taken to address the problem. Property rights in space would be a good start. If people have ownership of some sector in orbit, they will have a significant incentive to keep it clean for space traffic use. But the new owners are going to have to figure out what to do with all that junk in low-orbit’s trunk.

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