Space junk is a growing issue. From large chunks of rockets to specks of paint, the orbits around Earth are filled with garbage—garbage that moves faster than a bullet and endangers astronauts and other satellites.
The number of satellites is increasing enormously, year after year. Just five years ago, there were over 2,000 satellites in orbit. Now, thanks to mega-constellations like Starlink, there are 9,000 satellites. By the end of the decade, this number is expected to reach 60,000.
Space has changed and we are in danger of ending up with Kessler Syndrome, where a piece of space junk hits a satellite, producing more space junk hitting other satellites in a cascading event leading to a completely unusable orbit. This situation is not inevitable, and we talked about it Professor Moriba Jah about how the solution to space waste could come from Indigenous and First Nations knowledge of stewardship. Modern problems may require ancient solutions.
Can you tell us what you mean by calling yourself a space environmentalist?
Professor Moriba Jah: When I talk about the space environment, I’m really looking at the space orbit as a finite resource, because we put satellites in very specific places and these orbits can only take so much traffic. When things die, they continue at very fast speeds and don’t return to Earth anytime soon – some things never come back. The amount of orbital space is limited and the highways are becoming more and more packed. Space environmentalism sees it as an environment in itself that needs to be protected.
What are the risks of letting the space junk problem get worse and worse?
MJ: As I was saying before about the orbital highways becoming more and more crowded with things, most of them dead or dying. They are a lot of pollution just orbiting at very high speeds. The problem with that is because these dead things are fighting in physical space, they are also capable of colliding with working satellites, which are providing services and capabilities that we critically depend on, such as location, navigation, timing, communications, Earth observation, you know, we have a war in Ukraine. These robots in the sky that we call satellites are very useful to humans. People know more about humanity and the world because of data provided by satellites than through any other means and none of those satellites are shielded or protected against harm. Injury can come from pieces of junk, and the number of junk is growing.
Do you think that the current drive for increased commercialization of space is making the problem of space waste worse?
MJ: Definitely. I think the commercialization of space in itself is not the problem. It is only a problem because it is not tackled holistically. One of the things I firmly believe in is what I call old tech: traditional ecological knowledge. These are principles or principles that come from Natives who believe that everything is interconnected and that the only way for humanity to succeed is through having a successful conversation with the environment through stewardship. Stewardship asks us to be responsible for things and ownership tries to exercise rights and things like that. By and large, humanity has abandoned this intergenerational stewardship contract and because of that, and not seeing all these things as interconnected, we have many of the problems we have today.
Why isn’t space sustainability a bigger part of the conversation yet?
MJ: Part of the problem is that we don’t let Mother Nature know the unintended consequences of our actions. I remember years ago, one launch a month was a busy year for launches. Currently, on average, we are launching more than twelve satellites per week. That’s enough. That’s very different than before and I can tell you that at this rate, we have no idea what the unintended consequences of shipping so many things so often are. When we take our foot off the gas pedal, Mother Nature is very good at giving us feedback and that’s part of the principles of old technology. Don’t behave in ways that fundamentally prevent yourself from being sustainable in the future.
I think the application of the principles of old technology would help with the sustainability of space, but also, I believe in a circular economy of space which focuses mainly on trying to minimize single-use satellites. Can we make rockets and satellites usable and recyclable, in the first place? If we can do that, then that definitely minimizes the number of things we’re sending, and for the things we can’t make reusable and recyclable, can we then dispose responsibly? Forcing the object to re-enter, burn up in the atmosphere, but design it with materials so that it doesn’t pollute the atmosphere itself when it burns up in the atmosphere? I think we can do that. I remember that Japan was developing a satellite made of wood, for example, which I found interesting. These are ideas that I believe we can all apply. Governments can support it and that would certainly go a long way in achieving space sustainability.
What do you think governments, international bodies, and space agencies could do to change our current approach to putting things into space?
MJ: I was part of a team under the World Economic Forum that started something called the Space Sustainability Rating, which is now being run in its second phase by the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne in Switzerland as a mechanism to involve more and more space operators and even governments and use that as a basis to drive or incentivize sustainable transport in space. I think if governments and industry adopt the space sustainability rating, I think that will lead to improved space sustainability. There are governments that I recommend, and one of the advice that I give them is that you should have, as part of your advisory board or a group of people who advise you, Indigenous people or First Nation people to give you their views on how to use space as a finite resource and how to do it successfully because these Indigenous people have been able to achieve that for thousands of years. Therefore, we should listen to them, and it is back to the ancient tek telling how to use advanced technology.
This interview was part of IFLScience’s The Big Questions and has been edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss out on the biggest stories every week.