Space Junk

Alise Miluna contributes Space Junk. With over a million derelict human-made objects left circling our planet from the early days of the Cold War and multiplying every year, near-Earth orbit is a museum of space exploration since the beginning of the Great Acceleration, a candidate start date for the Anthropocene.


Museum of the Anthropocene: Space Junk

Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water.
– Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency

Space junk – representation of debris in orbit. Image: European Space Agency

As above, so below?

In 1957, the Soviet Union entered the Earth’s outer space with the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik 1. In 1958, their Cold War opponent the United States followed with Vanguard. While Sputnik 1 eventually returned to Earth, Vanguard remained to become the oldest of what are now over a million derelict objects in various orbits around the Earth. 

Although these whole and fragmented satellites, rockets, lost astronaut equipment and waste are far from sight, at the Adrift project site you can meet them in the form of music produced by tracking their movement. 

Space junk is a museum of space exploration, which has been pursued by rich, powerful and technologically advanced groups worldwide since the beginning of the Great Acceleration, which is also a candidate start date for the Anthropocene.

Satellites are products of the technological development and industrialization behind dangerous environmental change. They enable human coordination across the globe as well as surveillance by political powers. They have also improved our understanding of the Earth system and how it is changing. 

94% of the astronauts in space are either American, Russian, Japanese, German, Chinese, French, Canadian or Italian. They fly vehicles such as rockets on a range of missions, some of which advance further space exploration. As humans on Earth come to terms with planetary limits and tipping points, will the solar system and beyond become a new frontier where matter can be extracted and transformed into infinite economic growth? Or will some humans, as advocated by the late scientist Stephen Hawking, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and other public figures, respond to the problems of the Anthropocene by leaving Earth and settling colonies elsewhere? What would you prefer?

A third possibility is using space technology to develop just and sustainable systems on Earth. However, all these prospects are threatened by their own devices. The increasing clouds of space debris circle Earth at speeds ranging from about 3,000 to 8,000 km per second. Collisions with even the tiniest fragments endanger space operations. 

Furthermore, every collision can multiply the amount of space junk. We might eventually experience the Kessler effect, where cascading collisions increase the density of debris to an extent that makes some Earth orbits unusable. Produced by a few, space junk might impact all of us, including future generations. Does this remind you of other Anthropocene processes, such as the dispersal of pollutants like microplastic, or the risks of runaway climate change?

Deep space exploration by humans has been romanticized by several science fiction books and movies. However, space debris reflects the politics and practices of development on Earth and suggests that the Anthropocene can extend wherever humans do.


Notes

Space Junk was contributed by Alise Miluna: “Since finishing my Masters in Environmental Sciences, I have been working in the food sustainability field in Latvia. This project felt like a journey around the world — I enjoyed exploring a new topic and the connections between our relationships to outer space and the biosphere.”

Adrift is a project by artists Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan, who “explore the secret world of space junk, making it personal, visible and audible.” It features an interactive experience, a documentary film and a sound installation.

You can explore space debris by the numbers at the European Space Agency site.

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