Noortje Marres 1 Jan 1999

Edge your Way through Orbital Debris!

Orbital debris is defined as any man-made Earth-orbiting object which is non-functional with no reasonable expectation of assuming or resuming its intended function or another function for which it is or can be expected to be authorized, including fragments or parts thereof.



Orbital trash -


We have come here to take a closer look at the Earth's immediate surroundings. As you may know, a lot of exciting things have been going on lately in Earth orbit. We have witnessed the arrival of the first element of the International Space Station (iss), the first satellite network (the Iridium constellation) has just been installed, and a short time ago the first pc in space passed by. These newcomers belong to the category of operational spacecraft, a category which comprises only 5% of all man-made objects orbiting Earth. Let's leave this glorious category aside for the time being. The remaining 95% (orbiting waste) will be our topic for today.

We have transgressed the boundary/interface called sky. We are confronted with a hardware problem. Space junk – the thousands of objects remaining after eol (a satellite's End of Life) – poses a threat to the machines which are working up here. Explosions and collisions have already occurred, and will continue to occur. Are we interested? With great scoops like Iridium and iss at hand, it seems artificial to focus on the leftovers. The risks being run by satellites, let alone the world population, are hard to notice from the ground. And whether or not the space debris problem offers an illuminating metaphor for hardware and software situations on Earth is open to discussion. We have little to go by. But why not let the question mark serve as an incentive? Some perspectives on the wider context, the habitat, of the above-mentioned blissful technologies can fuel our discussions. Enjoy your visit.

Indications of a degrading environment

Satellites will transform Planet Earth into a clean, peaceful whole, which is just what it looks like when viewed from outer space. It therefore comes as an annoying surprise to find that satellites are making a mess of their own environment. This is due to a rather primitive mechanism of waste accumulation, the piling up of dead satellites and rocket stages. The total number of defunct man-made objects (> 1 cm3) in Earth orbit is estimated at 100,000. This is annoying, as this junk causes the livability of Earth orbit to decrease. In early December of 1998, the crew of the shuttle Endeavor, on a mission to build the International Space Station, cancelled eva (Extra Vehicular Activity, i.e., a space walk) at the last minute, and went eight kilometres out of their way to avoid a rocket stage which had been launched the month before. Impacts on spacecraft, as well as more than 60 fractured Space Shuttle windows, are further indications that we have to regard these objects as possible causes of collision. And this danger can only be expected to intensify. First of all, because more artificial moons are being sent up, and thus more future waste. Secondly, because debris tends to break up into fragments: one broken machine is good for up to 200 new objects. On February 15th, 1998, the upper stage of the Meteor 2-16 exploded in Lower Earth Orbit and caused a Tsyklon third stage to break up into 80 fragments. Analysts calculated ejection velocities ranging from 15 m/s to more than 250 m/s. We don't hear about it often, but satellites are transforming their own habitat into a minefield.

Now the Space Race has Gone Corporate

The satellite force is expanding big-time. It is also changing owners. In 1997, the number of commercial payloads carried into space tripled that of the previous year, exceeding the number of military and civil payloads for the first time. Corporate domination of Earth orbit is underway. Over the next five years, 860 commercial satellites will join the total of 650 currently functional spacecraft. Reasonably enough, managing the accompanying increase in waste will come at the expense of corporate players. It's an unfortunate combination of circumstances that the available solutions to the space debris problem as it now exists display a terribly crooked cost-benefit ratio. Direct retrieval of space junk, i.e. return of spacecraft to Earth via the Space Shuttle or Soyuz capsule, demands extra missions. Who wants to go on a garbage collection flight? Any volunteers? Of course not. Besides this, decreasing the number of operational satellites is out of the question for corporate players, and for governmental ones as well. In its Orbital Debris Quarterly News, nasa states that although these commercial networks will not represent any fundamentally new issues, failure to follow responsible procedures could exacerbate the orbital debris environment. Yet any corporate interest in responsibility is unlikely, especially if it has to be expressed in projects as costly and old-fashioned as garbage collection.

This Goes Way Over Our Heads

Orbital debris is an alien phenomenon. After several aimless years in Earth orbit, a module of the Salyut 7/Cosmos 1686 landed in Ghana in 1996. I've seen a picture of two Ghanese men and a child bending over the weather-beaten spaceship in the middle of the night. Other such ‘atmospheric re-entries without burn-up' occurred in 1979 when a Skylab module touched down in the Australian countryside and 1995 when the Cosmos 398 splashed down in the Pacific. Space debris is also alien in a more abstract sense: it has almost nothing to do with us. Explosions, collisions, and the satellite failures they cause generally go unnoticed. And if we did notice, they'd still be none of our business. We're consumers of satellite signals; complications in the production process are the provider's problem. Thus Earth's inhabitants have virtually nothing to do with the environment of that planet. usspacecom (United States Space Command) has made available to the general public most of the existing information on the trajectories of objects in Earth orbit. But what they don't provide is the corresponding public interest. And why should they? The public already has its hands full standing in awe of blissful hi-technology.

No Problem At All

Euroskyway, Teledesic, Cyberstar, Motorola and other operators of space systems definitely aren't going to panic. The entrepreneur knows of no structural problems, remember? Besides, ‘space debris' has an embarrassingly primitive ring to it. It makes the excessive accumulation of artificial moons in Earth orbit seem primitive, too. So corporations invoke all the available arguments to make clear that orbital debris is no big deal. In fact, Earth orbit is cleaned by nature! Objects left on their own follow decaying orbits, which means that sooner or later they'll be caught by the Earth's atmosphere and burn up on the occasion. Of the 24,000 objects (> 1 cm3) that have been tracked over the past few decades, 15,800 have already disappeared. It's only because of the satellite industry's current boom that we're experiencing a transitory debris hausse. Moreover, if there is a problem, then a solution will serve satellite owners' interests. So don't worry, they'll keep the situation under control. Companies like Pioneer Rocket Plane and Rotary Rocket are working on amazing new rocketry. Cheap and clean reusable rockets will soon make the expensive and dirty expendables from the Cold War era redundant. Satellite replacement will be a matter of changing a light bulb. Innovative technology has proved itself before as the perfect cure for painful calls for limits to growth.

Is This An Emergency?

A massive satellite breakdown only exists as a prediction; any such fantasy provides us with nothing tangible. The image lures, and then you stick out your hand to get caught by thin air. Not that there's any lack of disaster previews. At 9:48 ut (Universal Time) on July 24th, 1996, a collision was observed between the operational French microsat Cérise and a fragment of an Ariane 1 rocket. And in early 1998, ambulances in Los Angeles lost contact with the emergency room due to a failure of the Galaxy iv communication satellite (cause unknown). Yet the consequences of these danger-confirming cases have proved disappointingly inconspicuous. The Cérise spacecraft was revived in no time, and the la emergency force was restored to full capacity within eight hours. We can, of course, resort to metaphorical signs of approaching doom, but that leaves us with even more hollow promises. The name of the brand-new Iridium network (66 satellites) refers to the element that is primarily found in meteor debris. Its presence on Earth is evidence of the theory that dinosaurs were rendered extinct by meteor impact. If you then read the slogan it's hard to imagine how far IRIDIUM WILL TAKE YOU… you begin to get the picture. So what do you do? Tremble? Smirk? There's little to gain by eschatological speculation. So maybe space debris shouldn't be approached as an emergency, but rather as a pain in the ass. It could be alleviated by reducing the satellite force in number, that is, by applying an organizing principle different than the current method of bidding against each other with larger and larger constellations. Theoretically, you only need three satellites to cover the entire earth.

This All Sounds So Industrial Age-Like

The problem with space debris is that we had already decided we wanted to get rid of environmental hazards like these at the beginning of the nineties. Around that time, corporate actors started to pay attention to green issues, and society as a whole was beginning to go really digital (dust-free), so from that point onwards, the hard and dirty stuff that machines are made of officially belonged to the past. It now appears that since Sputnik 1 (1957), we have put roughly 100,000 loose machine parts (> 1 cm3) into Earth orbit, all of which pose a threat to our information systems. It's a problem of brainless expansion, Characteristic Number One of the Industrial Age. The seventies and eighties displayed an increasing awareness of this evil. It now turns out to have persisted alive and kicking into the wrong decade. Thus the old but also new news about space debris denies the information age its status of being radically different than what came before it. It poses the question of whether it isn't time (once again) to replace mechanisms of accumulation (more, more) with different, more elegant ways of proceeding. In this sense, I think space debris would do a great job as a public interest issue.

The nasa-Air Force Space Command Partnership Council's Task Team on Orbital Debris

The discovery of an environmental problem is often an exciting event. Space debris was first tracked by the us Space Surveillance Network (ssn), a radar network originally installed for national security purposes. nasa and esa have developed impressive orbit and impact simulations to document this phenomenon. Yet solutions to environmental problems, on the other hand, tend to be quite boring. Spectacular actions against space debris are, for a number of reasons, considered impractical. To make the direct retrieval of debris compulsory is juridically impossible: space law has been developed to apply to countries, not to private actors; that is to say, not to corporations. A second juridical complication lies in the fact that the rightful owner of most objects is unknown, so there would be nobody to compel. Thus, according to the experts, risk prevention measures and regulations to encourage their implementation are the only way. Satellite owners should be requested to deposit satellites in a graveyard orbit, and to deplete on-board energy sources before breakdown. Actually doing anything about the excessive accumulation of spacecraft in Earth orbit isn't considered an option. Governmental Task Forces are definitely on alert, but they only want to regulate, not change. This is another reason why they don't need the public involved, and why their solutions are so boring .

With Some Of The Most Dynamic Forces In Our Industry Behind It...

Corporations do not suffer as much as governments do from a innate tendency towards boringness. The Iridium network, for example, is presented as a spectacular event, and in a sense, it certainly is. Its owners come from five different countries; Iridium lacks a native country, and in that sense is the first true multinational. The company has received lots of attention because of its drive to establish a new form of co-operation. Of course this new form is valued exclusively for its economic merits. On all other fronts, Iridium is a ‘grand project' of the classical type: it impresses because of the numbers involved (66 satellites, $3.5 billion in construction costs, $5.5 billion for construction plus instalment, accessible to 60% of the world's population). But what if satellite owners would cooperate not in order to push up the numbers, but rather to configure the artificial moons working up there into a sustainable, elegant constellation? To bring down the price paid for communication? Who's going to make them do that?


thanks to Alex Wilkie, London^^



- stewart taggart^^ ‘Rocket Change', in: Wired, San Francisco, October 1998

- Space Debris, Working paper submitted by the International Academy of Astronautics, to the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Vienna, January 1998

- The Proceedings of the Second European Conference on Space Debris, esoc esa sp-393, Darmstadt, May 1997

- The Space Debris Problem, presentation by W. Flury, on the occasion of the General Meeting of the Dutch npoc escl, Leiden, May 1998

- david s. bennahum
‘The United Nations of Iridium', in: Wired, San Francisco, October 1998

- r.c. reynolds and c.a. karpiuk (eds.) The Orbital Debris Quarterly News, Volume 3, Issue 2, nasa, Houston, April 1998