A Salient Earth emphasises the volatile nature of man-made orbital debris and its environmental impact caused by space exploration. It highlights the complexity of designing for a relatively unknown and extremely hazardous environment, one which has the ability to transform functional feats of technological progress into non-functional pending catastrophes.
A Salient Earth refers to the earth being surrounded by man-made orbital debris and the perpetual threat it poses for the earth and the exploration of space. Each day that we look up into the beautiful blue sky or the depths of night, bringing our attention to the stars, we are missing yet another invisible environmental crisis in our view.
Man-made orbital debris are space crafts, satellites or technical equipment which are either; non-functional large objects awaiting an impending catastrophic crash with another, or fragments of ones that have already crashed or exploded while circling earth in some of the busiest and most important space exploration highways at speeds of up to 17,500mph. This effect is exponential and is known as the ‘Kessler Effect’. This poses threats to the lives onboard the ISS and those travelling in and out of space from earth. It also poses threats to those going about their daily routine here on earth unknowingly about to be swooped or even hit by falling debris from outer space.
The threat to life comes in multiple forms, should debris as small as a fleck of 1mm paint hit vital parts of satellites which help the world run important data transfers, economies could crash. Consider what would happen if GPS satellites were destroyed unexpectedly. There have been many occasions the astronauts on board the ISS have had to duck into the Soyuz-TMA capsule which could return them to earth in case of a collision with debris.
Through out the history of human exploration a common factor among all journeys of discovery has been the acceptance for potential fatalities amongst explorers. Since the beginning of space flight, dozens of people have died or been injured during space flight and space flight related accidents. More recently on February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during atmospheric entry, killing all seven crew members.
Space exploration is challenging to say the least, lives have been lost and the dangers are only deepening, due to junk we have polluted a once pure and empty environment with. Our own feats of technology and extraordinary human capabilities have unprecedently progressed humanity, yet in the death of the objects which we used and designed to do this with, they become the antithesis of our ambitions and pose threat to life and humanity.
With life comes the inevitable, we each will face death. Although this is our certain fate many of us rarely contemplate it during our lives. It is of course human nature to aim to survive and avoid a cause of death at almost any cost. During our lives we aim to achieve certain goals before we pass on, after a life time of hard work it is natural to want to see your end goal come to fruition. What we need to consider however is that although it will bring great satisfaction to us in our life time it may just cause another generation’s life time to be a living nightmare. Generations to follow will have to deal with the mess we create while we are ‘achieving’, as we inadvertently create someone else’s future goals which are progressively inheriting an improbability of solving.
Our current exploration of the planet Mars is in the hope that it could one day be habitable should we create an inhabitable earth. This demonstrates that we as a global community are preparing to make the future generations of earthlings live out a possibly less than human experience on a volatile planet rather than preserving the one they’re entitled to. For some reason we consider this an ‘achievement’. It is becoming increasingly evident that we are the disruptive force to the earth’s environmental ecology, the evolution of man is being man-made and natural forces play a secondary role in our progress. In polluting Mother Earth and exasperating her recourses we factor natural life into a mechanical system of technological building blocks to solve the problems we create artificially and most time superficially, this is a broken ecology. Nature and life are one natural ecological system and anything outside of that is a part of a mechanical ecology.
It is in this circumstance that we can pollute the earth and now its orbit- does life only bring death or do we in life create it?
The clock face is an interpretation of research obtained from the article: Towards a Sustainable Exploitation of the Geosynchronous Orbital Region from the Politecnico di Miklano, written by Ioannis Gkolias and Camilla Colombo.
Gkolias, I., Colombo, C. Towards a sustainable exploitation of the geosynchronous orbital region. Celest Mech Dyn Astr 131, 19 (2019).