Orbital Space Junk Will Make Private Space Travel From Firms Like SpaceX Impossible

In previous weeks, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's company Stratolaunch Systems unveiled its plan to launch rockets into space using a specially-designed airplane by 2016. This comes on the heels of news that SpaceX's Dragon capsule will be the first privately-made module to dock with the International Space Station and Virgin Galactic's plans to start launching into space as soon as next year.

With these recent announcements about long-term private space ventures becoming a reality, many writers (including myself) have been very optimistic about the future of space travel. However, there is one glaring problem these private firms haven't addressed: The dangers posed by space junk accumulating in the Earth's orbit. Not only will the space junk problem slow down the growth of space travel technology, but it will also lead to necessary governmental regulations on private space travel to curb the further growth of debris.

According to a recent study by the National Research Council, the Earth's orbit has reached a "tipping point" in space junk accumulation where items such as parts from old satellites and rocket boosters can continually collide with other pieces to create more debris. While many pieces fall back into the Earth's atmosphere and burn up in the process, at least 20,000 pieces of soda can-sized space junk are still in low-Earth orbit. The velocity of these orbiting pieces of debris can potentially damage and destroy satellites and spaceships, and in the process create even more debris. The problem has reached the point where some scientists believe that in 10 to 30 years, the accumulating junk could make some regions of the atmosphere off-limits to space travel.

As more and more countries and corporations develop their own space capabilities, some sort of international system to monitor space junk will need to develop in order to prevent accidents that could create more debris in the Earth's orbit. Nicholas L. Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, has called for international cooperation to deal with the orbiting debris, and an Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee exists to unite these efforts.

The Federal Aviation Administration is faced with licensing companies for space travel and a substantial number of laws already exist in the U.S. regulating commercial space flight. If the accumulation of space debris continues at a growing rate, the FAA and similar organizations worldwide may impose stricter requirements on spaceship designs, launch procedures, and flight durations. While increased regulations would reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic accident in space, they would also increase the costs of already expensive private space programs, decrease the number new investors, and reduce the speed of technological innovation overall.

Despite sentiments from Virgin Galactic Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Steve Iskaowitz, space is not entirely "wide open" and serious measures need to be taken to ensure that we will be able to develop sustainable space travel without completely trashing the upper reaches of the atmosphere for future generations.  

Instead of space tourism, perhaps Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Stratolaunch would be better off investing in space garbage collection.

Photo Credit: NASA

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Jason Prechtel

Jason Prechtel writes about Chicago culture and politics (often the same thing) for Gapers Block, and is the editor-in-chief of Culture Bore, a blog about geopolitics, globalization, history, and more. He has a B.A. in Political Science from Illinois Wesleyan University, and has worked in broadcast journalism, advertising, public relations, and media research.

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