Imagine a world where you could not gain the pleasure of your favorite sports or your favorite series on Netflix, or any sort of entertainment that you look forward to after a long day at work. Imagine a world where the internet could not work anymore, where the ATMs stopped operating, and where there were no weather forecasts. Does this dystopian world sound scary? Now, what if I told you that the chances of all this becoming a reality are at all high.
THE EXPONENTIAL INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF
The world’s first satellite known as Sputnik was dispatched into space in 1957. Year after year, more and more satellites were dispatched into space as an increasing number of space actors appeared as well as more industries started depending on space for different purposes.
According to a recent report: “In 2020 1283 satellites were launched, which stands as the highest number of satellite launches in a year as compared to all the previous.
However, in 2021, almost 850 satellites have been launched as marked by the end of April, which is 66.25% of 2020.”
CHALLENGE #1: THE DEBRIS PROBLEM
According to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs: “Since inception 11,139 satellites have been launched, out of which only 7,389 are in the Space, while the rest have either been burnt up in the atmosphere or have returned to Earth in the form of debris”.
In more than 60 years, while everyone is in awe of the astounding achievements humanity has made off the earth, we should be equally shocked of what is about to come if we do not tackle the space debris or space junk that has been produced as a result of an increasing number of space exploration activities. There are a large number of bits and pieces of junk flying in space, which mostly involves portions of rockets and satellites that are either dead or lost and objects that are consequences of explosions in space.
The massive amount of debris is not the only challenge.
The majority of the space debris is flying at an exceptionally fast speed, crossing each other paths at varying altitudes, and there are high possibilities of accidents to occur as there are no space traffic rules which will further result in more space debris among other serious hazards.
CHALLENGE #2: THE TRACKABLE AND UNTRACKABLE
There are myriads of bits and pieces of junk orbiting in space. Nearly half a million range from the size of a bullet or a marble all the way to the size of an actual bus! Out of these half a million objects, only less than one percent (around 26000) of these bits and pieces of debris are trackable with the condition of tracking a piece of debris to be greater than the size of a softball. This means that more than 99% of the bits and pieces of debris in space are the size of a bullet (in millimeters) and hence, are untrackable. Think of hundreds of thousands of bullets moving at very high speeds in space. Now think of the dangers involved with these small objects moving around without the laws of friction in place! You might be wondering how harmful a millimeter-sized bit or piece can be, right? To that Dr. Moriba Jah says “well, how harmful can a bullet be”?
The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) created a Working Group in 2010 to create and set forward a set of voluntary guidelines for all actors of space to secure the long-term sustainability of Outer Space. In 2018, the Working Group settled on 21 guidelines along with a mutual agreement of member States to further discuss space sustainability. These 21 guidelines address collective solutions for space sustainability, security, and safety that all space actors need to follow. To date, the number of member states in this committee has increased to nearly 100 which is a healthy sign. Different marketing mechanisms such as Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) are also working to set forward a rating system to incentivize space actors. While the focus on cleaning existing bits and pieces of debris is of great significance, I think the focus on monitoring and quantifying the current and future space operations will be of greater significance. Instead of cleaning the oceans, let’s focus on not littering the oceans anymore.
THE WAY FORWARD
If we are to explore space and take full might of the opportunity it presents, we have to make sure that the debris challenges that await us are being addressed properly with mutual consent, and only then will we be able to set foot on new skies without damaging our feet. Dr. Iqbal-Poet, Philosopher, and Polymath-shows us the way forward by presenting his anti-gravitational thesis in an immortal manner. He says:
Other worlds exist beyond the stars—
More tests of love are still to come.
Do not be content with the world of color and smell,
Other gardens there are, other nests, too.
You are an eagle, flight is your vocation:
You have other skies stretching out before you.
Similarly, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky quoted “Earth is the cradle
of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”
EMBRACING STEWARDSHIP AND CUSTODIANSHIP
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily God, be He exalted, has made you His stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourselves.” The lands, sea, air, and space are interconnected. We all are users of space, whether directly or indirectly. From weather data, climate change information, to banking routes, agriculture support, position navigation, and timing services and the internet, our dependency on space increases every single day as we progress towards space-based platforms. With increased dependency on advanced technology comes increased responsibility of safeguarding the space. As custodians and stewards, we are responsible for the security, safety, and sustainability of our environment. Let’s not treat space like we have treated the oceans. We need to increase awareness of the space traffic footprint and the serious threats that space debris possesses. We need to be more conscious about how we operate in orbit and collective action is of utmost necessity to end the tragedy of the commons.