Tragedy of the [Space] Commons: Orbiting Junk Causes Emergency Measures Again In Space Program

The Space Station will not be moved out of orbit after all due to space debris. The Russian space program’s Mission Control Center had announced that it will move the International Space Station into a different orbit to avoid possible collision with space junk. We just discussed debris in space in my legal theory class as an example of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. The debris has passed, but the potential crisis highlights the increasing problem with space junk.

We have previously discussed how the United States, Russia, China, India and other countries have destroyed much of the very resource that sustains them by dumping space junk in space. As seen at right, even a small piece of debris can go through a space vehicle or destroy a billion dollar satellite.

NASA estimates that there are more than 21,000 fragments of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) that are locked in earth’s orbit. The debris has caused serious problems in the placing of new satellites and we recently had some near misses in space. In one case, astronauts had to go into the escape capsule to prepare for a possible collision. NASA tracks the debris:

7 thoughts on “Tragedy of the [Space] Commons: Orbiting Junk Causes Emergency Measures Again In Space Program”

  1. Dredd 1, October 4, 2012 at 8:56 am

    They have spread the “civilized environment” into the ether, now that the oceans have 5 floating continents of garbage on them.

    Where else to put the garbage?

    Do you know where ships dump their garbage, both Navy and civilian. You’re supposed to be at least 50 miles out to sea when you dump your garbage.

  2. Space junk is a perfect example of the human tendency of rarely if ever considering the long term impact of of their actions whether its littering the highway, littering space or exposing fellow humans to dangerous chemicals.

  3. Unlike the nuclear war and population scenarios presented in the Hardin essay, there are technical solutions to the space junk problem but they might be costly to implement and/or require revisions to international treaties involving space weapons. It is not, however, inconceivable to think of a design that is technically a weapon, but so lower powered as to be non-threatening for warfare purposes. For example, a space mounted laser of limited wattage combined with a good tracking system could target space debris over a long period of time to generate eventually (but not so fast as to be a weaponized threat) enough off gassing of material from the objects to change their trajectory and make said debris burn up in the atmosphere. Another example would be small robots that carry enough propellant that when attached to debris could do the same thing. Given the multinational interests in the ISS, the station itself could even serve as a platform for such devices. Given the nature of the problem, I would think getting buy in from the space faring nations (assuming we continue to be a space faring nation considering our governmental failings with NASA) would not be an insurmountable problem as clearing the spaceways of junk benefits them all.

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