Above us dirty skies

There’s no es­cap­ing the waste that hu­mans gen­er­ate, even in space.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIFESTYLE - By JUNE H.L. WONG

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.

Trash trek:

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