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What Do We Do About the Debris?

The Space Industry is booming; And it is producing a lot of space trash.

A new space race is happening. Just when you thought the pandemic was dampening all spirit and keeping business at slug’s pace, this race is proceeding with vigour perhaps not noticed since the 1960s. This year alone, we saw three different projects launch to Mars – The Perseverance Rover of NASA, Tianwen-1 of the Chinese National Space Administration, and UAE’s Hope Orbiter. For NASA, it’s a matter of perfecting their Mars Exploration Program further and for UAE, the mission marks their entry into the ‘big game’ of space exploration. For China, a country that has found a prominent spot in every other field, space remains a domain left untouched by it at least in a relative sense. This is why it has an array of ambitious missions expected to follow in a line-up that extends till 2024. The plan includes setting up a research outpost as well. USA, Europe, Russia, Japan, and India continue to fuel their research undeterred.

From all these observations, it certainly doesn’t seem like any of the actors are keen on slowing down. Research and scientific exploration of celestial objects and phenomena are essential. It keeps the question of the world’s evolution and birth thriving. For our urge to know every little detail about the abyss around us, this search just proves to be worthiest of all. But – yes, there’s always a catch to every good thing – this race that’s getting distorted as some determinant for geopolitical power is far from perfect. This holds particularly when you look at the amount of debris that floats around the Earth in orbits. In a truly utilitarian sense, these do threaten the lifespan of active satellites and other objects that we’ve planted in space. But, on a more concerning level, these are signs of humans being humans – we’re out there too, leaving an unfortunate sign of apathy everywhere we tread. There are more failed projects left unattended in orbits than ones we still receive communication from or are continuing to serve the purpose for which these were put together.

To deal with this problem of debris, we must move beyond just knocking these off busy orbits into alternative ones. We need to remove the debris. For preventing damage, as a temporary solution, the diversion of debris into different orbits that are less crowded can be considered. But efforts should not stop at this alone. For the removal of debris, researchers are perusing through multiple options like using debris sweepers or techniques like laser evaporation. In alignment with the need to act without delay, the European Space Agency has commissioned the first-ever project to tackle debris too. ClearSpace-1 is set to launch in 2025. Some other individual ideas like RemoveDebris are also working towards clearing space junk. Research on probes and debris removal must happen simultaneously – the progress of one should be on par with the other. Procrastinating when it comes to removing space junk will not do anymore.

While we’re racing against time to meet the targets set for the 2030 deadline of SDGs, we should equally turn to what’s beyond the blanket of air around us. Responsible behaviour, as an expectation, applies to ‘Space-geopolitics’ as well.

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