A Space Age “tragedy of the commons” is unfolding right under our nose—or, really, right over our head—and no consensus yet exists on how to stop it. For more than a half-century, humans have been hurling objects into low-Earth orbit in ever growing numbers. And with few meaningful limitations on further launches into that increasingly congested realm, the prevailing attitude has been persistently permissive: in orbit, it seems, there is always room for one more.
After so many decades of the buildup of high-speed clutter in the form of spent rocket stages, stray bolts and paint chips, solid-rocket-motor slag, dead or dying satellites and the scattered fragments from antisatellite tests—all of which could individually damage or destroy other assets—low-Earth orbit is finally on the verge of becoming too crowded for comfort. And the problem is now poised to get much worse because of the rise of satellite “mega constellations” requiring thousands of spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, a broadband Internet network. Starlink is but one of many similar projects: Another mega constellation from a company called OneWeb is already being deployed. And Amazon’s Project Kuiper is seeking to create a mega constellation of up to 3,200 satellites in the near future.
As the congestion has grown, so too have close calls between orbiting assets. The International Space Station, for instance, regularly tweaks its orbit to avoid potentially hazardous debris. Worse yet, there has been an uptick in the threat of full-on collisions that generate menacing refuse that exacerbates the already bad situation. Consider the February 2009 run-in between a dead Russian Cosmos satellite and a commercial Iridium spacecraft, which produced an enormous amount of debris.
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