Trash in Space

by: Cassie Woods

The first manned space mission was on April 12, 1961. In the past forty-three years since man first made his presence known in space, he has also been carelessly polluting Earth’s orbit with debris from damaged space vehicles, useless pieces of equipment, and your everyday black, plastic bags of trash.  This collection of junk has amounted to over ten thousand traceable objects from paint chips to satellites.   Although a paint chip does not sound like any type of threat, these objects are traveling at around seventeen-thousand miles per hour.  As long as there is no federal restriction on the dumping of garbage into space, millions of dollars will continue to pour into jobs where scientists track this waste, and space will become the place for our overflowing junkyards here on Earth.  Still, since not every piece can be monitored, the risk to future explorations remains high as something as small as a silver bullet could cause significant damage to any future outer space mission. 

Since Americans can be classified as some of the most wasteful beings on this planet, it is no wonder why we are running out of room to throw away our trash.  With statistics as staggering as the following taken from Mary Tyne’s article, “Why not throw away trash?” space starts to sound like a brilliant alternative to this messy situation.  Every Sunday, more than 500,000 trees are used to produce the 88% of newspapers that are never recycled. We throw away enough office and writing paper annually to build a wall twelve feet high stretching from Los Angeles to New York City. Americans go through 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, only a small percentage of which are now recycled. American consumers and industries throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet every three months.  Apparently the slogan, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” has not been as influential as some could have hoped.  Undoubtedly, some other means of disposal needs to evolve here on Earth in order to keep living conditions sanitary.

What would happen if attentions were actually turned toward space?  A photograph frequently found in space journals maps out what looks like an intertwined net of vandalized space surrounding Earth, covering almost every inch of her orbit.  In fact, the same picture has remained a constant pressure to scientists as they search out ways to improve this “junkyard” situation.  See: http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/Images/StarChild/questions/space_trash.gif.  

space trash

In reality, after looking at this picture it would seem that space is not a solution after all; that there is not any “space left in space.”   After prompted by the question of the pros and cons pertaining to space garbage dumping, Ask a Scientist’s response author, Mortis replied,

“Space is very large compared to Earth.  Even if we "threw away" the whole planet, it would be a tiny speck in the vastness of space.  There is no danger of filling space with junk.  Now there is a problem with filling Earth’s orbit with junk, because Earth’s orbit is a fairly small region of space.  But, it takes so much energy to get into Earth’s orbit that it will never be a practical junk heap.  We are not even sure it is worth the cost of putting a space station up there, let alone a pile of garbage.  Garbage on Earth is something we are just going to have to learn to live with.”       


Perhaps the solution doesn’t lie in space, but in a more efficient use of Earth’s resources.  On the other hand, an efficient means of throwing away trash outside of Earth’s orbit, according to Mortis, may also be a possible solution. 

Logically, an explanation for throwing trash into space may spring from the ignorant assumption that space is uncluttered, and therefore maintains an environment to support a high surplus of foreign material.  However, according to W.L. Rathje, “there are 10,000 "resident space objects" - and only 5 percent of them were functioning spacecraft in 1997 (Rathje, W.L.).”  There is real garbage, too. During its first decade in orbit, for example, “more than 200 objects drifted away from the Soviets' Mir space station, most of them cloaked inside garbage bags.  Although, the most trash is accounted from approximately 150 satellites that have blown up or fallen apart, either deliberately or accidentally. They left a trail of 7,000 fragments large enough (over 10 centimeters) to be tracked from Earth (Rathje, W.L).” According to these statements there is definitely room for improvement, not trash.  Adding more garbage to Earth’s atmosphere would only present problems that would create more risk to future space exploration.  Actually, some of these problems have already proven themselves to exist.

Knowing the trajectory of space junk is very important to our future in space. In 1979, a one hundred and fifty ton Skylab crashed into the outback of Australia after being left unmonitored in space.  “On a mission in 1995, the shuttle orbiter Columbia took a hit, while circling the earth that could have ended the mission had the NASA debris squad not predicted the danger beforehand, based on an earlier shuttle flight (Rathje, W.L).”  Space trash is dangerous to working satellites and spacecraft such as in the instance above. “NASA frequently replaces Space Shuttle windows damaged by orbiting flakes of paint.  One example was an impact on a window of a shuttle caused by a "space trash particle" about 100 microns in size hitting the window at a high speed (White).” The astonishing picture of this collision can be viewed at the following link: http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question22.html. 

hit window

    Obviously small pieces of debris can significantly damage spacecraft because of the speeds at which they travel. “A ten-centimeter long piece of space trash can cause as much damage as twenty-five sticks of dynamite!” (White).  Different sources have claimed space to be a great alternative to the growing trash problem on Earth.  However, looking at the situation metaphorically, the seemingly innocent trash objects being relocated into space suddenly are bombs and booby traps set to work against what NASA, for example, has set out to accomplish.  With government funded multi-million dollar missions, errors so easily avoidable such as trash relocation do not seem worth the risk.

This is just a mere summary of how space polluting has already created tribulations, it is not all inclusive.  There is no federal restriction on the dumping of garbage into space.  In the absence of this regulation, space missions will continue to risk their longevity to suddenly significant pieces of scrap as small as a centimeter in length.   Based on the gathered evidence, dumping trash into space would, be and is, an unintelligent decision that causes many more problems than it could ever possibly solve.  Before further contaminating Earth’s orbit, more thought has to go into creating an efficient trash collection service or other means of improving the situation instead of continuing to add to it.  Trash in space gives an entire new meaning to the idea of pollution.

Other suggested links:
Star Child Question of the month
Why not throw thrash away?
Space Trash

Works Cited

Mortis. Wingert, Jennifer.  “Ask A Scientist.” Environmental Science Archive. 01 Nov. 2004 <http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/newton/askasci/1995/environ/ENV132.HTM>.

Rathje, W.L. “Archaeology of Space Garbage We're Loading the Final Frontier with Technology's Trash.” p. 108. 1999. Discovering Archaeology. 01 Nov. 2004 <http://www.kenlarson.net/code/scienc01.htm>

Roybal, Robert. Stein, Charles. Tlomak, Pawel. Wilso, Warren.  A Review of Hypervelocity Debris Testing at the Air Force Research Laboratory.” p. 357-369. 5 Feb. 2004. Space Debris 2. 01 Nov. 2004 <http://www.kluweronline.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/issn/1388-3828/contents>

Tynes, Mary. “Why not throw it away.” 2001. www.mastercomposter.com.  01 Nov, 2004. <http://www.mastercomposter.com/purpose/throwout.html>

White, Nicholas. “StarChild Question of the Month for June 2000.”  June, 2000.  01 Nov. 2004. <http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question22.html>