Above us dirty skies
There’s no escaping the waste that humans generate, even in space.
YOU’RE a space tourist – yippee! – one of the few privileged ones who can afford the US$200,000 (about RM 620,000) ticket to orbit Earth’s stratosphere. Just as you are enjoying a perfect view of the big blue marble from space, something slams into your spaceship and tears a huge hole in the hull and you are flung screaming into the void. Except, as they say, in space, no one can hear you scream ...
This, you would think, is the stuff of scary sci-fi movies but this “nightmare scenario” is a very real possibility that worries the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists. It’s called the Kessler Syndrome, named after Donald J. Kessler.
The former Nasa senior scientist for orbital debris research had described the cascading effect of man-made space junk colliding and causing more fragments which would lead to even more collisions until the planet is surrounded by a belt of spinning, deadly shrapnel.
That, of course, makes space trips quite dangerous. One would guess it’s not something Richard Branson wants to talk about or highlight. After all, his space tourism plans are in full flight.
Last Friday, he attended the dedication ceremony of the Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway for Spacesport America in the state of New Mexico. This first commercial spacesport is expected to be operational next year.
Branson already has 340 people signed up for space flights with his Virgin Galactic who must be wondering what to pack for their miles-high vacation.
What they may not realise, like the rest of us, is that the Final Frontier is also mankind’s ultimate junkyard. Just 63 years after the launch of the first man-made object – the USSR’s Sputnik 1 – to orbit the Earth on Oct 4, 1957, there is a litter trail of frightening proportions that include defunct satellites and spent boosters.
According to National Geographic (July 2010 issue), scientists have catalogued 11,500 objects larger than four inches in low Earth orbit and another 10,000 that are smaller or orbiting further up, creating what it described as a “hypervelocity menace”.
These fragments travel at very high velocities, like bullets shot from a rifle, and if any crash into a spacecraft, it will be a disaster.
Until last year, the Kessler Syndrome was academic. Then in February 2009, a communication satellite (Iridium 33) collided with a dead Russian satellite (Cosmos 2251) some 800km above Siberia. The collision created another 2,000 large pieces of debris.
This collision was, as Kessler put it, “catastrophic” and the first clear example of what he predicted in 1978.
Now Nasa and other international space agencies, which track the larger debris to allow spacecraft, manned and unmanned, to evade them, are figuring out how to clean up the space trash.
Not surprising, cleaning up is always tougher than creating the mess. It will involve a lot of money and resources and no one can quite agree on how to do it.
In a way, it is not the least bit surprising that we humans have managed to litter our way into space. From the moment we learnt to make fire and catch prey to cook, we have left rubbish behind.
Our ability to create garbage got a mega-boost when we invented plastic. It gave rise to our great disposable way of life.
In plastic we trust and in plastic we are now encased. There is a huge – said to be anything from twice the size of Texas to the entire North American continent – swirling vortex of plastic bags entangled with all sorts of other junk, including chemical sludge, in the North Pacific Ocean.
This Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is called, is yet another man-made ecological nightmare that threatens marine life. Eighty percent of the rubbish is estimated to come from land sources and the remaining from ships.
Scientists and NGOs are also trying to break up this floating garbage patch. But it seems like a Sisyphean task because as long as us human beings continue our use-and-throw ways, more garbage will just flow out into our oceans and enter our food chain. Actually, our plastic is throttling the life out of our food chain.
Up in space, if they don’t clear the, er, space, Virgin Galactic might find their flights grounded faster than a volcanic ash fallout as more collisions occur, and more debris fragments created.
Even if we manage to clean up the space junk, sending up pleasure spacecraft will become another source of pollution for poor old Earth.
According to space-travel.com, quoting a Nasa and Aerospace Corporation study, rocket exhaust could become a significant contributor to global climate change in coming decades.
According to the study, soot emitted by the estimated 1,000 sub-orbital flights a year – not their carbon dioxide emissions – had the greater potential to contribute to global climate change in coming decades.
The study explained that rockets would use hydrocarbon and the soot particles emitted by space tourism rockets would accumulate in a stratospheric layer at about 40km altitude, three times the typical altitude of airline traffic.
“These particles efficiently absorb sunlight that would otherwise reach the earth’s surface, causing projected changes in the circulation of the earth’s atmosphere from pole to pole. Unlike soot from coal power plants or even jet aircraft, which falls out of the atmosphere in days or weeks, particles injected by rockets into the stratosphere remain in the atmosphere for years,” said the report.
The warnings are being sound-
Travel to space, mankind’s ultimate junkyard, is now possible aboard the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2. ed. But the sad truth is do we really care? Human beings have a great ability to bury our heads in the sand or optimistically leave it to others to fix the problem.
In Malaysia, after two decades of annual bouts of the haze, courtesy of Indonesia, we grumble, then promptly close our windows and turn on the air-conditioner to shut out the problem.
Our own rivers and drains are so clogged with refuse our precious water resources are at risk. Even awnings in high-rise flats are not spared as dumping grounds as neighbours do the unneighbourly thing of tossing out their rubbish from their windows.
In 1968, scientist Garrett Hardin coined the term “the tragedy of the commons” to describe what can happen when individuals act selfishly for their own interests and not of those of a larger group when using a shared resource. Because of that, the resource is destroyed and everyone suffers. Sounds familiar?
Branson wants to make astronauts out of everyone who can afford it. Maybe he should start building spaceships big enough to airlift millions from this world (but it will be most likely the millionaires who get to go) as we turn it into a planet of garbage and leave behind Wall-Es to clean up.
Don’t debunk this. The makebelief in movies has become reality far too many times. And what we see happening around us – a giant oceanic dump, a band of shrapnel surrounding the planet – seems right out of Hollywood. The really scary thing is it’s all real. n Managing Editor June H.L. Wong tries to her bit for the environment but is the first to admit that it is truly just a bit.