anyone out there want to adopt an orbit?

June 12, 2010

A few days ago, I growled at the political blog TruthDig for their cheap shot at space tourism and noted that keeping space out of reach of dreamers with big goals and space-bound ambitions just because they create companies to build new generations of spacecraft, was wildly irrational. Likewise, they decided to avoid doing even the slightest bit of research on the technical concepts involved with the inflatable space structures being planned for future space hotels before questioning whether the concept with just a lot of hot air, and going into equating whatever plans today’s space tourism startups have with BP’s spill, Toyota’s accelerators, and toxic materials found in fast food meals. In other words, the post was pretty much what you’d expect from the typical political blog. But in the discussion thread about my take on TruthDig there was a very interesting question to consider about the future of space tourism, a question that I thought needed to be a post in its own right…

With the dire oil spill sending oil slicks across the Gulf Coast while BP and its contractors blame each other’s shoddy work, trying their best to undo the massive public relations damage with tactics which we could easily attribute to one of Potemkin’s descendants being hired as a PR consultant, people are wondering about how well companies are meeting environmental standards and what other disasters could be just waiting to hit us thanks to lax regulation and shortcuts in the name of saving a few bucks. It’s very distressing question which we’re often afraid to ask until disaster strikes because we know that a truthful answer is probably not going to help us sleep at night any better. So in the spirit of asking pressing question tied to current events, I wanted to tackle the following question from Pierce Butler, who forwarded the TruthDig story to me in hopes of getting more technical details on inflatable space hotels, and the regulatory concerns they could cause…

… if the Motel 6 magnate decides to save some bucks by tossing trash out the airlock, who’s going to make him stop producing that (potentially) deadly jetsam?

Now, environmental laws don’t seem to apply to outer space because pretty much everything there is floating in a vacuum where nothing actually lives, and gets bathed by radiation and periods of intense heat and nearly as intense cold. However, letting loose with a volley of junk into orbit could potentially knock out satellites we need for GPS, communications, TV, military intelligence, and weather forecasting. And as of today, there’s no law that would forbid the practice and no regulatory body which will have the power to do anything to punish a space hotel operator who does it. Packing up junk and sending it back to Earth in a vessel would be costly, so the temptation to just chuck it overboard would be there. And since satellites and space hotels won’t generally share orbits as not to collide into one another at about 17,000 km/h, the chances of actually hitting a satellite would be rather small. But as the junk’s orbit decays, or the momentum of the ejection sends into into another orbital path, it will eventually hit something important. Keeping any future space tourism company from simply shooting debris into orbit would take an international effort and a legal framework that will make sure that the applicable fines are paid, and that those fines aren’t just a slap on the wrist.

We need to keep in mind that we don’t really have a way to clean up space junk and the damage it may cause can only be mitigated rather than prevented. If space hotel operators decided to pollute the space around our head with refuse, they have to be held accountable. The worst case scenario is that their own junk will hit the very vehicles delivering paying clients to their orbital hotels, destroying the entire industry in the process while setting commercial travel back by decades. Space travel is extremely risky already and we certainly wouldn’t want to make it any more so. Rather than planning to eject junk into orbit, it should be ready to ferry it back to Earth by the SSTO craft being planned to make space hotels a viable and relatively affordable venture.

[ illustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren ]

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  • JJoelC

    I generally agree that there would need to be some pretty strict regulations about “space junk”, but I also think that to a large extent simple economics would negate most of the issue. It is (or can be) relatively cheap to bring waste back down to earth (gravity doing most of the heavy lifting, if you’ll pardon the pun) especially when you already have a transport making the trip in each direction to begin with. But it is MUCH more expensive to take things up there to begin with. I would hope that it would still be cheaper and more practical to just recycle everything, and end up with little to no waste to begin with rather than jettisoning material with truly no hope of ever getting it back.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    Aw, c’mon! You’re not going to open the debate? ;-)

    Since there are already deep concerns over the orbital debris that currently exists, this is one of several valid questions that really need to be addressed, like, soon. Tomorrow wouldn’t be jumping the gun. In fact, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard it being broached by NASA already.

    The simple solution is the same as maintained by US national parks already: pack it in, pack it out. Enforcing that, however, will take a regulatory agency that has the rights to monitor both pad and landing weights of the service vehicles (and succeeds better than the park policy.) But landing with the additional weight of waste products makes an entirely different picture to the development of these new vehicles, and one the companies would need to incorporate, again, soon.

    Another solution, used in several science fiction stories, is a waste capsule with rockets to purposefully de-orbit in controlled conditions. Is it safe to think that most waste would be non-toxic enough to be of no concern during reentry? And again, the concept has to be thought-out soon to establish the target windows (over the oceans, presumably, to avoid surviving debris from posing a danger to populations) and boost the capsules and fuel into orbit in the first place.

    I’m left wondering about the idea of disposable containers, like those used for food deliveries, that rapidly decay under strong UV, to limit the time that ejected debris would remain in a dangerous orbit. Would this be enough? Many of the plastics we use now break down and crumble, given enough time, but would they break apart in space, or remain delicate but intact until acted on by something else? This would be bad if that “something else” is another satellite…

    Potentially, this could be a jump forward in waste management, introducing ultra-consumable packaging. But it’s going to take someone (i.e. the government) requiring it in the first place.

    This whole thing reminded me of a passage from the Bard of Bards, Douglas Adams, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide:

    [...] the fabulously beautiful planet Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion by ten billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete while on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave: so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    There used to be a United Nations treaty that no country would “weaponize” space; it may still exist on paper, but thanks to the Reagan et al “Star Wars” program that’s about as far as it seems likely to get.

    Personally, I’d like to see a UN Space Authority with serious regulations and strong power to back them up. My off-the-top-of-my-head suggestion would be that each orbital artifact capable of creating a hazard (not including basic comm/recon/etc units) be accompanied by one or two separate robosats scanning it constantly by videocam and radar, both posted live on the Web 24/365 (and, ideally, also serving navigational, safety, and other purposes).

  • http://www.spacetravel.org Space Travel Sue

    Historically, regulations are formed after the fact – that is, once it is obvious that there is a problem, politicians decide that “Something must be done.”

    Any attempts to regulate, for example, the dumping of waste from space hotels, before a problem occurs is seen as government interference with private industry.