Take it to the Moon: Repurposing Space Junk

By Damien O’Connell

750,000. That’s the amount of space junk larger than 1 cm orbiting our planet. On average, these objects travel at 40,000 kilometers per hour, and when they hit other objects, like satellites, the result’s comparable to a grenade going off.

Outer space refuse has already given us some headaches. The Soviet Union’s Mir Space Station endured several impacts. In 1996 and 2009, debris destroyed active satellites. In 2013, space junk hit a Russian satellite, changing its spin rate and orbit. And just last year, suspected space debris struck the Copernicus Sentinel – 1A Satellite, but luckily caused only little damage.

So far, we’ve been lucky, but that luck may soon run out. As space junks continues to accumulate, we could face the Kessler Syndrome, a situation where space junk becomes so numerous as to destroy all active satellites. As of June 2016, 1,419 satellites currently orbit earth. What if these disappeared? The world would take a very, very hard hit, both in lives and treasure. Beyond this, debris could potentially destroy the International Space Station and even make it impossible for space vehicles to enter or exit the atmosphere.

We’ve got to act. We could try to destroy space junk, sure, but that may very well just create more, leading us, again, to a Kessler Syndrome scenario. So, here’s another thought: Why don’t we repurpose it?

Here’s one idea: Collect the stuff and use it as raw materials to build a colony on the moon. Just last year, leading scientists, to include prominent members of NASA, produced a special edition of New Space journal where they laid out ideas and plans for colonizing the moon. The ultimate purpose for such a colony would be to support missions to Mars. And all that space junk orbiting us? We could use it to build the foundations of this future lunar home.

So, how do we get there? For starters, the government should fund research into finding ways to collect and move space debris. Cooperation with industry likely holds the key to success here. Government incentives could possibly even lead to an entire space debris reclamation sector. Right now, there’s little money in collecting space junk, but with the Moon colony mission (and Mars) on the minds of many leading scientists at NASA, this could change with a few nudges from the government.

Let the race for the first galactic garbage man begin.


Where Is Christopher Columbus Today?

Charles Mueller

We need a new Christopher Columbus. The problem is we don’t really have a world where new explorers who want to venture into the unknown easily come about. This is because we lack the ability to truly explore the next great frontier (i.e. space), a consequence of our lack of commitment to creating a culture that is passionate about exploration.

Sure, it is true that we can launch rockets into space and use our telescopes to view our universe like never before. We have the ability to study black holes from the comfort of our own planet and can drive remote control cars around on the surfaces of other planets. In fact, one of those recent joy rides seemed to reveal that our neighbor Mars might be able to support or has supported life as we know it. This isn’t really “exploration” though. This is doing what Galileo and Copernicus did in more sophisticated ways. The great explorers of our past didn’t really care what was out on the horizon as much as they wanted to just see what nobody else had ever seen. We need a new Christopher Columbus today.

The new frontier is (and has been for like 50 years) space and we should be dedicated to exploring it in the same ways we have always explored things: by sending people out in vessels only to send back information about the strange new things they saw on their journey. We aren’t doing this because it is not a national priority. We currently do not see value in reviving what has always been true about the human spirit, reviving our need to explore. This might be because the world only has a small tolerance for global S&T projects. Currently, it would be easy to argue that we would rather spend our dollars and our time trying to figure out a grand unified theory of nature. I am not saying that the 1.1 billion spent on CERN by 21 nations is a bad thing, I am actually saying that it would be great if we were doing more things like this and one of them should be getting people to space.

I felt it was appropriate that on Columbus Day to write about exploring new frontiers. This is something we not only should be doing, this is something we need to be doing. It is in our DNA. The reason we are not is because it is this kind of S&T policy that is not a priority of the United States people and leaders. We are the only true leader in today’s world and if we made this a priority, others would follow. We need a new S&T policy priority dedicated to exploring the new world, to exploring the last frontier. We need a new Christopher Columbus.