After land and oceans, will space become the new waste dump? The issue is not a new one, as it has been the focus of discussion for years, and has been regarded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for two decades as a crucial emerging challenge facing humanity. However, the panic that struck the world because of the unguided returning Chinese rocket, wandering uncontrolled in space before falling into the Indian Ocean, has renewed interest in space debris as a current problem, not limited to the future or science fiction.
Of course, we cannot compare the volume of current space waste to the solid waste produced around the world on a daily basis, which exceeds two billion tons annually according to World Bank estimates. Yet, no one would have imagined 100 years ago that solid waste would reach this size, overrunning the sea after swarming landfills.
Therefore, any delay in the treatment of scrap waste caused today by human activity in space threatens to convert it into a new waste dump in the future. Signs have already begun to appear, not only in space orbits, but on the surface of explored planets as well.
The surface of the moon today is estimated to have more than 190,000 kilograms of waste left by manned and exploration spacecraft and rovers. The first man-made body to land on the moon was the Soviet probe Luna-2 in 1959, while the American Apollo-11 in 1969 was the first manned space ship to land on its surface, and 2013 witnessed the first smooth landing from an unmanned Chinese rover probe. These and many other exploration vehicles and equipment that have reached the surface of the moon in the past 60 years have left their litter behind. The landing of rovers and exploration probes on Mars marks the inauguration of a new waste dump on a third planet, after the Earth and the moon.
Space has begun to be crowded with satellite waste, as it currently hosts more than 2000 operational satellites and 3000 expired ones, which have become scrap metal and hazardous waste. Waste from rocket parts and expired satellites orbiting Earth today are estimated at more than 9,000 tons. Among the nearly 2,000 large parts of wandering rocket bodies, there are 1035 remnants from USSR/Russia, 546 from USA, 170 from China, and the rest from various countries, led by the European Union, Japan and India.
The problem is exacerbated when these expired satellites and wandering debris collide, producing hundreds of thousands of fragments that take their own orbit, posing a threat to operating satellites and spacecraft. The problem will be exacerbated with private companies entering the race to send space ships and satellites to space, especially for communications and GPS services on Earth. It is expected that this will lead to the launch of more than 50 thousand new satellites in the coming years, leading to the emergence of unprecedented space traffic congestion, accompanied by more waste filling space after they go out of service.
The Chinese rocket reminded the world that the danger of space waste is not limited to outer space, but also affects Earth, threatening the safety of humans and nature, when debris fall randomly. The remnants of the last rocket fell into the Indian Ocean, causing people to breathe a sigh of relief for not falling on populated areas or a ship with crew at sea, although the potential effects on marine life are still unknown. However, the remnants of a similar Chinese rocket a year ago caused damage when they fell on populated villages in the Ivory Coast. It was not possible to determine the location of the crash until a short time before it occurred, because the rocket lacked control devices for the return trip to save cost and time, as China hurries to build its own manned space station.
The Chinese rocket is not the first piece of space waste to return to Earth, but it is the largest object to fall freely. While the burning and disintegration of objects as they enter Earth's atmosphere is better for space safety than them remaining randomly orbiting, the danger comes from reinforced large parts that do not breakup in pieces, such as the resistant fuel tanks. The bigger the rocket, like the last Chinese model, the larger the fuel tank is. There are no sufficient studies yet on the impact of debris from space landing in random locations, not only on people, infrastructure and buildings, but also on life on land and at sea, and the environment and ecosystems in general.
With the increase in space congestion, and the entry of countries and private companies into the foray to secure a share in the airspace, it has become imperative to set strict standards that define adequate safety and security conditions. These are necessary to prevent accidents and to ensure that no new dumpsites arise in space, besides leading to waste from space polluting land and oceans, and endangering people’s safety. These standards do not yet exist, and if damage were to occur due to any rocket or satellite, be it Chinese or otherwise, there are no clear rules in international law for assigning liability. Among the proposals put forward is to prevent the placing of objects weighing more than 10 tons in space orbit without devices that control their return trip landing location. It is also necessary that countries and companies be obligated by law to remove their satellites from space when they expire, in safe and secure ways, and to hold them responsible for any damage that may occur.
The danger is that the issue might turn into something similar to the dilemma of allocating responsibilities in combating climate change, as some countries, led by China, demand the right to pollute at higher levels and for a longer period, given that developed industrialized countries were historically the source of most of the carbon emissions that cause global warming. To avoid that, countries that led space exploration should themselves begin by adopting strict standards that put an end to space congestion and pollution. China, as a major new space player, must participate in setting these standards and abiding by them. The United Nations, specifically UNEP, have a major role to play in this regard.
The world cannot bear to repeat devastating mistakes. There is no time for another grace period that prolongs space pollution, similar to the one adopted in the climate change negotiations under the slogan of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities. The devil lies in that “but”, where countries that have turned into industrial superpowers insist on hiding behind it, while its true purpose was to give a fair chance to developing countries to enter the era of modern technology and be able to achieve sustainable development for their people.
The international community should cooperate to prevent making space a new waste dump.
Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine.