Space junk is getting worse. Could the answer be smart plastic wrap? That concept, being investigated by Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, involves blasting thousands of tiny, flat spacecraft into orbit. There they would find and hug the bits and pieces of failed satellites and rockets, dragging them into the atmosphere to burn up. There are more than 7,000 metric tons of material in the near-Earth space environment, said J.C. Liou, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris.
While various methods have been suggested and tried, none too successfully, to tackle this issue, the latest push for it has come from the White House. President Donald Trump signed the Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) on Monday, which directs "the United States to lead the management of traffic and mitigate the effects of debris in space." According to a statement by the White House, SPD-3 "provides guidelines and direction to ensure that the United States is a leader in providing a safe and secure environment as commercial and civil space traffic increases." Previous directives by Trump, SPD-1 and SPD-2, instructed NASA to restart crewed missions to the moon and created the regulatory framework for private players interested in space commerce, respectively. Since both those endeavors would lead to an increase in space traffic, the concern with space debris is only natural.
For a few months in the fall of 1957, citizens of Earth could look up and see the first artificial star. It shone as bright as Spica, but moved across the sky at a much faster clip. Lots of people thought they were seeing Sputnik--Russia's antennaed, spherical satellite, and the first thing humans had flung into orbit. But it wasn't: It was the body of the rocket that bore Sputnik to space--and Earth's first piece of space junk. Space junk is the colloquial name for orbital bits that do nothing useful: spent rockets, fragments splayed by collisions and degradation, old satellites no one cares about anymore.
As an international relations scholar who studies space law and policy, I have come to realize what most people do not fully appreciate: Dealing with space debris is as much a national security issue as it is a technical one. Considering the debris circling the Earth as just an obstacle in the path of human missions is naive. As outer space activities are deeply rooted in the geopolitics down on Earth, the hidden challenge posed by the debris is the militarization of space technologies meant to clean it up. To be clear, space debris poses considerable risks; however, to understand those risks, I should explain what it is and how it is formed. As outer space activities are deeply rooted in the geopolitics down on Earth, the hidden challenge posed by the debris is the militarization of space technologies meant to clean it up.