WHEN RAINFALL BURNS
At 11:53 GMT on 24th January 1978, the Earth experienced what had, by then, become a regular atmospheric occurrence – but with a newer, hazardous dimension. Kosmos 954 – a nuclear-powered Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT) – had malfunctioned, failing to jettison its nuclear core, before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere with this module. As a result, this failure led to the inadvertent scattering of radioactive debris across a protracted swatch of the Canadian Northern territories. A joint Canadian and U.S. clean-up operation ensued, eventually recovering ten radioactive fragments that successfully reached this landscape, one apparently emitting radiation 'sufficient to kill a person', before, thereafter, billing the Soviet Union for this remediation work under the national liability provision established in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. This type of incident would be repeated over five years later with the malfunction of Kosmos 1402, when this particular RORSAT satellite also failed to jettison it’s BES-5 fission reactor into a higher ‘disposal orbit’, before breaking apart, and eventually resulting in an uncontrolled re-entry; subsequrntly dispersing 31–44 kg of U-235 over an uninhabited region of the South Atlantic Ocean (near Ascension island).
These particularly dramatic instances of radioactive debris, raining down from the sky across the terrestrial surfaces, draws into sharp relief the ongoing, largely unseen saga of debris management and mitigation efforts, playing out across the grand theatres of planetary orbit. The RORSAT failures are certainly unique episodes in Space Age history, but both incidents perhaps overstate the direct hazards posed by these unseen legacies on these unseen legacies on terrestrial lifestyles, health, and safety. Certainly, the uncontrolled re-entry of debris from orbit presents some degree of risk for those who
reside on the ground; mostly experienced by residential populations surrounding launch sites, through explosive failures and subsequent exposure to hazardous chemicals, alongside other contaminants. However, in reality, the hazardous risks posed by space debris are an indirect and causal affair; implications borne by the technological prostheses of human engagements within space, and sometimes directly by those who temporarily travel to space. With regards to the latter, frequent sensationalised stories document the dangers of space debris for astronauts on space stations, but the reality of these hazards are mainly felt by contemporary and future space-based services; constellations of navigation, telecommunication, reconnaissance, and weather, alongside other Earth observation satellites which need to occupy Low, Medium, and Geostationary orbits (in addition to unusual orbits such as Elliptical and Molniya). Present-day and future infrastructure will need to cohabit these regions, alongside the increasing fields of debris, and older passivated satellites (that will experience fragmentation); items of material space culture with very long orbital decay lifespans of decades, centuries, and even millennia. Despite this, some regions will remain a permanent fixture of Earth – for example, Geosynchronous orbit; a satellite graveyard that may become a defunct ‘Clarke Exobelt’.
EARTH ORBIT LAUNCHES BACK
We seldom experience the implications of space debris and improper satellite disposal that play out in an arena far above our heads and daily lives, until we are abruptly confronted with financially expensive damage from impacts to contemporary space infrastructure, widespread service disruptions or, in more visible instances, when these fragments rain downwards across our unsuspecting planet in highly energetic, colourful displays (most notably, the defunct Skylab and MIR space stations). Disabled objects, such as the Envisat satellite (which itself may have been a victim of a space debris collision), continue to present further hazards – not only due to the particular ‘bus-sized’ scale of this object, but also due to the very possible scenario of fragmentation from future collisions with extant space debris – contributing to an escalating stewardship problem. Assuming this defunct spacecraft doesn’t experience future collisions in an already crowded region of Earth orbit, it will continue to tumble uncontrollably at an altitude of 800 km above Earth, until our planet naturally drags it back into the atmosphere in about 150 years’ time.
Recognising the possible costs now associated with the indiscriminate discarding of satellites, rocket bodies, dummy payloads, and other defined refuse, also reveals the broad implications for this matter on future generations of satellite services and monitoring programmes. Debris items already in space, present an increasing potential to cripple entire orbital ranges for decades; through a chain of accidental fragmentation events that set conditions for a Kessler syndrome incident, or even purposeful acts like a kinetic bombardment strike. According to DISCOS – the European Space Agency’s debris tracking office – we are surrounded by over 8,800 tonnes of anthropogenic debris in Low to Mid-Earth orbits; dynamic fields comprised of ~2,850 defunct satellites, over 1,950 discarded launch vehicles, about 990,000 fragment 1–10 cm in scale, and approximately 128,000,000 smaller, untraceable pieces of material with a potential for serious harm – all of which speed around our planet at hypersonic velocities. The latter two categories do continue to grow in number, despite our difficulty in observing this proliferation.
NAVIGATING THE GROWING JUNKYARD
The majority of this extant debris field emanates from the geopolitics of the early Space Age, in which planetary orbit was seen as the next or ‘final frontier’; a cultural vacuum waiting to be filled by the synecdochical tropes, mindset, hardware, and heroes of a single competing superpower, during the defined ‘Space Race’ era. Similar ideological friction could be readily observed in other arenas of the Cold War, but space represented a crucial, technological theatre, with global security and defensive implications (and how these achievements translated into influence and prestige amongst undecided nations). Orbital stewardship was clearly not a defining feature of this early agenda, resulting in the silent accumulation of launch bodies, passive satellites, separation bolts, flakes of paint, aluminium particles, fuel slag, and snap-frozen masses of liquids, that continue to hastily speed around our planet at approximately 7–8 km/sec; creating a widening web of collision probabilities, and eventual damage to contemporary infrastructure, as well as serious collision probabilities for crewed space stations and residing personnel.
The manifestation of this artificial field of discarded matter around our planet – a dynamic junkyard with the potential to cause significant disruption to the future lifestyles of human societies, can be broadly described as a ‘revenge effect’; a term, defined by Edward Tenner, as inadvertent consequences resulting from an indiscriminate adoption of newer technologies, without broader scrutiny, foresight, or considerations for the unintended side effects that can 'bite back'. As highlighted by Kosmos 954, this pollution is not only confined to the physical material detritus of these structures as they impact and disintegrate into smaller fragments, but also the risks posed by composite fissile materials, and the diverse range of hazardous toxic substances used in spacecraft as fuel, shielding, and coolant, amongst other systemic applications. Presently, in the defined region of Low Earth orbit, there are 44 known nuclear reactors in varying states of fragmentation, over 30 of which are ejected cores from defunct RORSAT satellites. This assessment, of course, does not include the ‘traumas’ now experienced by occupants of space stations, nor the ground control charged with their safe return, when encountering insignificant debris items with potential for significant harm.
DECONGESTING OUR SKIES
The ethics of space stewardship and acknowledged obligation to mitigate or ‘clean up’ these ageing elements of material space culture, are subject to extensive discourse by a number of expert national and international panels, most notably the guidelines of UNOOSA, and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. Both organisations continue to review the progress of ongoing co-operative activities and research, as well as strategize debris mitigation options. In addition to these formal plans by inter-state parties, examples are abound of other diverse commercial and ethical proposals to ‘clean-up space’, with some ideas including; the launch of additional satellite infrastructure to drag objects out of orbit; operating high-tech lasers to push (or disintegrate) particulates; large nets to ensnare fragments; and other ‘best-practice’ control measures intent on limiting the quantities of materials sent into space. There are no answers, or firm international legal commitments, to mitigate debris fields, with several orbital regions set to be further exploited by commercial entities within the coming decades. The promotional inclusion of a Tesla Roadster to this dynamic landscape seems to already correlate with this commercialist expansion, and desire to poise an idiosyncratic legacy on the edge of eternity – in addition to meeting several other suspected virile and exorbitant intentions. This particular example also possesses relevance for the perennial bioload risk of payloads, launched in the vicinity of other astronomical bodies, and the probabilities that humanity is already engaged within a definable practice of contaminating other planetary bodies with terrestrial microbes, unwittingly or otherwise, as part of our explorational activities. ‘Planetary Parks’ may need to exist, to preserve these regions for future scientific scrutiny, as well as balance other competing agendas.
There are many stakeholders present within the orbital stewardship–debris mitigation debates. The most obvious, in context with the above discussion, are parties who wish to responsibly ensure safe and continued access to these orbital regions, in the interest of supporting the next generations of navigation, telecommunication, reconnaissance, surveillance, and Earth observation missions. Another identified stakeholder is the for-profit technological industries and entrepreneurs, who wish to capitalise upon the market value of orbital data collection for a plethora of global economic applications. The balance of these agendas is presently skewed in favour of the for-profit ventures, and their commercial opportunities within delivering space services for
technologically addicted civilisations, perhaps at the expense of space as ‘a commons for all humanity’. Comparatively, seldom discussed is the heritage significance for some older Space Age objects – cultural assets that modern vernacular, laden with value judgements, usually situate under the broad category of ‘space debris’; a unique collection, encompassing specimens of intact rocket bodies, satellite systems, and other materials which possess a geopolitical, historical, social, technological, scientific, and perhaps even spiritual significance for the many societies engaged within aerospace activities and exploration.
HERITAGE IN SPACE!
One seemingly inconspicuous object, for example, is Oscar III; an amateur radio satellite that, over the course of its brief operational lifespan, enabled more than 1,000 amateur radio technicians in 22 countries to communicate through its linear transponder. The AMSAT community, the successors to the OSCAR project, affectionately cite this hardware as the first satellite to pioneer voice transponder equipment, in addition to being the first hardware to utilise solar cells in orbit, and first to utilise separate beacon transmitters, as well as serve to interconnect amateur radio operators across national boundaries by relayed 176 messages from 98 stations in North America and Europe during its lifetime. Disregarding this ‘culture of firsts’ rhetoric in the technical exploration of space, the satellite is also the oldest surviving specimen for this type of hardware remaining in planetary orbit, having been launched on 9th March 1965, and may remain in this Low Earth Orbit for the next 1,000 years if left unmolested. Comparatively, the Vanguard 1 satellite remains as the oldest known synthetic object surviving in Earth orbit, having been launched on 17th March 1958, but it’s orbital lifespan is anticipated to be 300 years. Oscar III may break Vanguard 1’s record, but these cultural assets may still survive as some of the longest-lasting human artefacts if left unmolested. We seldom consider the significance of Space Age relics, until they are lost, re-found, or orbits naturally decay.
Earth orbit presently contains many idiosyncratic specimens of early pioneering technologies similar to these examples, some of which remain as the only surviving specimens of these artefacts, or lineage of technical engineering, in lieu of missing manufacturing records or blueprints available on Earth. ‘Technological exemplars’ are one identifiable category, but heritage significance, as noted above, far transcends this single grouping of objects. Similarly, the emotional significance populations affectionally attach to pieces of space hardware in orbit, deep-space, or on another planetary body, shedding light on another unique dimension to the overall importance of space exploration on the developmental history of modern human behaviour. These objects, essentially, become extensions of human cognition as mental-material representations of their creators from afar, human ambassadors across both time and space. The ranges of heritage significance for specific space assets, which will remain in orbit for decades or centuries, is plentiful, but not every asset will remain fully intact and indefinitely preserved in-situ, or remain inhabiting
a suitable region of orbit in context with the responsible debris-mitigation management strategies. As such, we shouldn’t expect every item with heritage significance to remain in such conditions, but we are now faced with a shrinking window of opportunity to identify some crucial assets before indiscriminate clean-up activities are implemented as a now necessary extension of our planetary stewardship tasks.
As a loose departure point from our established stewardship practices, the foundation is pioneering a concerted effort to initially peer-identify, and track, distinguished satellite infrastructure in geocentric orbit and on, or around, other astronomical bodies. This inaugural catalogue will serve as a basis for drafting formal international heritage registries and soft-law protection guidelines, as well as to support further space archaeology studies, in context with inter-agency debris mitigation guidelines, and other principles of environmental or biohazard management strategies. These items of celestial 'alternative heritage' are significant for our cultural landscape insofar as they collectively document the successive historical, technological, political, scientific, and philosophical phases of our pioneering space generations in the Anthropocene era, and should, therefore, be subject to some form of future conservation provisions, in order to safeguard select material elements for posterity. This is, of course, dependent upon whether it may be feasible to preserve these assets in their congested regions of planetary orbit, 'by doing as much as necessary, and as little as possible', as per the Burra Charter (a heritage conservation framework, usually discussed as a format for space artefacts). Moreover, several of these documented artefacts, similar to those outlined in the RORSAT examples, also possess direct material relationships with waste legacies and hazardous substances featured throughout the ‘After the Horizon’ programme, necessitating further monitoring and action, if deemed necessary. These hazards include radiological, chemical, biological, and POP risks, alongside the future fragmentation and collision probabilities that affect future human proliferation.
FOOTNOTING FOR POSTERITY
As part of these activities, an independent 'Space Heritage' platform has been cultivated as an active catalogue and real-time 3D mapping of multinational objects in Earth orbit, and in proximity to other astronomical bodies, in order to collate public nominations, memories, and oral histories of spacecraft necessary for formally determining the relevance of historical celestial artefacts. This registry is developed as a decadal study to document the transient shell of 'significant' artefacts, currently residing within extreme environments, that regularly intersect protected orbital zones (as defined by inter-agency debris mitigation consortia); regions of LEO and GEO that are essential for sustaining contemporary technological proliferation and scientific study of the Earth system. This index will, thereafter, enable forthcoming multidisciplinary committees to assess whether identified heritage items within these regions may be feasibly preserved in-situ, while minimising the risk of debris accumulation in these vital orbits for the benefit of future space programmes. Further Moon, Mars, Venus, and Mercury models, which document heritage assets on these astronomical bodies, as well as potential instances of ‘bio-footprints’, are also being developed to simply track landing or impact locations, and other anthropogenic contamination sites for future international discussions.
In addition to these operations, and as part of a concerted international effort to support the legal recognition, formal management and protective guidelines for off-world archaeological sites and artefacts, the foundation has contributed our paramount Catalogue of Human Heritage on the Moon and affiliated research to the For All Moonkind consortium. The catalogue materials have been utilised as the foundational bedrock for their Blockchain ‘Moon Registry’, and will also be used to support their formal legislative and heritage management activities within COPUOS proceedings. For more information about this ongoing work, please visit For All Moonkind.
Page last updated: 28 Oct 2021
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