Representation of all active satellites (in green) and space waste measuring more than 10 cm (in red) on 26 August 2009 from Spacetrack, ranging from the LOE to the geostationary orbit. Illustration by Keith Lofstrom.

The environmental Non Governamental Organization (NGO) Robin des Bois published a 62 page report on “Space Waste“, which includes illustration and maps. This is the report on space waste to be published by a NGO, describing the risks for space activities, Earth and the interplanetary environment. We reproduce here the introduction to the study.

The Space race has managed a significant achievement. In 50 years, humanity has sent tons of waste from Earth to space. “The ocean above” as Victor Hugo called it is a victim of industrial pollution of a new genre, striking, proliferating and long lasting it is of the same nature as the pollution of our worldly ocean riddled with plastic polystyrene and hydrocarbon waste however space waste is much harder to recuperate.

The life of a satellite is not much longer than that of a car, about twelve years. On earth, managing out-of-use cars and their accessories is a real headache. In space, managing Out of Use Satellites is a case of “each state for itself” and involves a certain amount of inconsideration. Waste management in all its forms is a science as well as a mirror of collective behavior. Space waste is no exception to the rule however no-one, especially operators, saw it coming. In the 1970s, traces of titanium and alumina were detected for the first time on Guinea pig satellites. This was blamed on solar flares or the chemical composition of asteroids but was actually from paint and combustion residues on the spacecraft. Space experts did not anticipate geometric expansion or the multiplication of waste from orbital collisions and explosions. In 50 years, human activities in space has created more waste in the Earth’s low and high orbits than meteorites injected by the solar system in billions of years.

Today, no manned space flight and satellite or interplanetary mission is safe from collision with destructive waste. On Earth, no one is immune to waste falling from the sky above or uncontrolled re-entry on the Blue Planet, not even a whale. Space waste contributes to light pollution in space and disturbs astronomers’ observations. Nuclear reactors on board the satellite mask the natural radioactive background noise in the cosmos, emitting gamma-rays even when the satellites are no longer in use.

All this for internet, GPS, satellite telephone and radio as well as many business activities, media and entertainment that make a lot of money and produce tons of waste without having to pay a space TGAP – General Tax on Polluting Activities. In the near future polluters should pay, in order to manage and recover space waste.

Space law is also broken.  The steps that may put an international agreement on prevention and space waste management in orbit are far from the launch pad. The only glimmer of hope: space logistics managers now understand the urgent need to act to clean this spatial dump and prevent waste at the source.

You can read the “Space Waste” report from the Robin des Bois website.


About the author

Andrea Gini

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Andrea Gini is a content strategy consultant specialized in companies of the space sector. He is founder of Space Safety Magazine, where he held the position of Editor-in-Chief until March 2015. Between 2011 and 2013 he worked in the European Space Agency in the Independent Safety Office, which overviews the utilization of the International Space Station. He previously worked as Software Developer, IT Consultant, and trainer of Java-related technologies. Andrea holds a BSc and an MSc in computer science from the University of Milano, a Master in Communication of Science from the International School for Advanced Studies of Trieste and a MSc in Space Studies from the International Space University.