On January 21, 2018, a private American aerospace manufacturer and satellite launch service provider called Rocket Lab, shot a rocket — carrying a 3-foot tall spherical satellite covered with 65 reflective panels — into the Earth’s orbit from New Zealand. Now, propelling a flare-producing object on a high-tech spacecraft may sound strange or even sinister, like “Step One” of an evil plot in some eccentric James Bond film. But, it wasn’t meant to be intimidating — it was meant to be inspiring.
Or, so says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive. According to Beck, the carbon fiber satellite, called the Humanity Star, was intended to stay in orbit for 9 months to “create a shared experience for everyone on the planet.” Rocket Lab wanted it to serve as a “reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe.” But, not everyone saw it this way. In the early months of 2018, Beck and Rocket Lab were the subject of much controversy, especially on social media.
Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at The American Museum of Natural History, tweeted: “How arrogant do you have to be to decide you could create a fake star that would inspire people more than an ACTUAL star. Or even a planet or the moon???? Publicity stunt. Bad bad bad. #fail #humanitystar.” Astronomer Mike Brown from the California Institute of Technology similarly expressed himself on the platform: “Wow. Intentionally bright long-term space graffiti. Thanks a lot @RocketLab.”
But, Humanity Star was only the beginning. Just a couple of weeks later, Elon Musk strapped his car — a “$100,000 cherry red, convertible Tesla Roadster” — to the Falcon Heavy — the most powerful operational rocket in the world — and, with the top down and a dummy at the wheel, sent it into outer space. To many, the stunt seemed like an example of “bored billionaires treating the world as their playground.” Yet again, scientists took to the Internet to complain about the publicity stunt.
The frustration partly stems from the inconvenience aimless satellites pose to scientists working on obtaining data and images from space. Alex Parker, planetary astronomer and artist, shared a star-studded astrophoto with a white streak going through it on Twitter. He paired it with the following text: “For no reason at all, here's what it looks like when a satellite goes through Hubble's field of view whilst you are trying to image something in the distant solar system.”
Parker is one of the astronomers exploring the Kuiper Belt, a region of leftovers from the solar system's early history, with the New Horizons space probe. He “developed difference-imaging and digital tracking techniques to suppress the starlight while leaving behind the slowly-moving Kuiper Belt objects of interest, and trajectory analysis tools to determine the fuel cost to reach any candidate objects.” In his work, a little extra light is a big deal.
Space littering is another serious concern. The Orbital Reflector, which was lunched later that same year, was intended to be the world’s first purely artistic satellite. The artwork — a 100-foot-long, diamond-shaped sculpture constructed of a lightweight material similar to Mylar — was supposed to self inflate like a balloon once it was 350 miles above ground, serve as a visible installation for 3 months during orbit, and burn up in the Earth’s denser atmosphere once it completed the mission.
The sculpture was meant to be “a slowly moving artificial star as bright as a star in the Big Dipper,” but, after almost a decade of research and 1.5 million dollars of funding, it failed to inflate and has since been lost in space. Interestingly, Humanity Star’s mission also didn’t pan out as planned. By March, its altitude was steadily dropping; since the satellite was supposed to last until September, the expensive project ended 7 months early. In both cases, the satellites were a waste of space.
It may seem like outer space is pretty empty but, at least a couple of times every year, the International Space Station has to actively avoid a potentially catastrophic collision with space junk. “While estimations vary, there are about 4,000 active and inactive satellites in space. They are at risk of being hit by the approximately half a million bits of floating space debris, ranging in size from micro-millimetres to two double-decker buses.” Collisions create shrapnel, which poses further issues.
Cosmic art projects and marketing ploys by certain millionaires aside, billion dollar satellites that fuel research and uphold our communications industries are also in danger, since satellites are being launched at a far greater rate than they are being destroyed. Hoping to put a 25-year cap on the lifespans of spacecrafts involved in orbital missions, the UN’s Office For Outer Space Affairs worked with NASA and the European Space Agency to develop a set of guidelines on space debris mitigation.
Of course, the existence of these guidelines does not mean they’re always being followed. Alice Gorman — space archaeologist with Flinders University in Adelaide — argues that just 40% of space missions are compliant with the guidelines. Considering the fact that space has only been accessible to people for the last 60 years, humanity is at the very tip of the cosmic iceberg in regard to space exploration, but also space pollution.
“The challenge is that all of our space agencies are inextricably tied to national governments and militaries,” writes Wired’s Amy Webb. “Seeking a global agreement on how to mitigate debris would involve each country divulging exactly what it was launching and when—an unlikely scenario. The private sector could collaborate to build grand-scale orbital cleaners, but their commercial interests are driven by immediate launches.”
The good news, though, is that we have people like Jason Held. He obtained his doctorate degree in robotics at the University of Sydney in 2004. Then, he went on to start the institution’s space engineering laboratory, where he led a space satellite project and worked on rocket engines. Today, Held is the head of the Sydney-based company, Saber Astronautics; it’s where he’s built the DragEN, a technology that he believes could help with the space junk problem.
The DragEN weighs a little over a quarter of a pound and resembles a kind of yo-yo that’s attached to a spacecraft or a satellite. When activated, it unfurls a string, which is hundreds of feet long and is “made of a conductive material that gathers electric and magnetic forces as it travels through the earth’s magnetic field.” Theoretically, this force will drag the spacecraft or satellite back towards Earth and into the atmosphere, where it will ultimately combust. The device is scheduled for testing.
Other attempts are being made as well. One, for instance, is being made by Kurt Anderson — a professor of mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. He has been working on a tiny 3-unit cubesat called OSCaR (Obsolete Spacecraft Capture and Removal) that is designed “to clean up space debris by its onboard nets and tethers, and this it will do autonomously, with little guidance from ground controllers.”
OSCaR’s scheduled for a five-year mission, after which the cubesat is programmed to self-destroy along with the junk it captured. The goal is to prevent the device from becoming part of the problem. The research team hopes that their tiny space-janitor will be able to track down some of the space rubbish polluting the sky. “We envision a day where we could send up an entire flock, or squadron, of OSCaRs to work jointly going after large collections of debris,” states Anderson.
With a little luck and a lot of work, anything is possible.