Why space junk is the real enemy of the US Space Force

President Biden affirms his support for an official military presence in outer space, which means a greater risk of space debris. Spy satellites might be the least of his worries.

In the final days of his presidency in 2019, Donald Trump officially launched Space Force, the USA’s first new military service in seventy years – and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Committing $40 million to the initiative, Trump signed off on the decision to extend the US Armed Air Force to outer space.

This decision came as a response to airborne lasers and anti-satellite missiles which had been in developed for several years during both Russian and Chinese military space experiments.

Though no actual troops would be sent into space, the lasers, controlled and launched from Earth, would be capable of taking out rival satellites.

‘The space environment has fundamentally changed in the last generation,’ said former Vice President Mike Pence. ‘What was once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial.’ This crowding has caused significant build up of space debris and junk – which could wind up being a bigger headache than any foreign laser or act of aggression.


The debate surrounding Space Force

Rivalry in space is nothing new, as nations have used satellites to detect opposition aircrafts occupying the airspace in times of global conflict since the 1960’s.

However, as space technologies and GPS capabilities have advanced, cases of remote controlled satellites flying closely to spy on those belonging to the other nations have been reported as recently as 2015.

Despite this activity, many Democrats were against the notion of funding a US military presence in space. They argued that the funding for such a program would be better suited for supporting humanitarian and sustainability endeavours here on Earth.

As Joe Biden took office in 2021, many awaited news about whether the budget for Space Force would be revoked. In February, Biden extended his full endorsement for the continuation of the mission, citing a need for stronger national security.

Another justification for developing aggressive space technologies is military deterrence, in much the same way as nuclear armament. When one nation begins experimenting with creating war tools for space, other nations with a space presence must respond by developing their own in order to protect themselves against perceived threats.


What about the space junk problem?

As military occupation in outer space becomes normalised, the efforts made by governments to clean up floating debris is increasingly important. Without a clear plan for such efforts, military satellites will have to worry more about random debris collisions than foreign spies.

It’s unlikely that you haven’t heard of ‘space junk’ yet, the pollution problem which extends far beyond the environmental crisis we’re tackling here on our home planet. Pieces of rockets, dead satellites, and tools dropped by astronauts are floating around in space at speeds of up to 56,000 kilometres per hour.

This debris poses the problem of entering space safely during future exploration, as well as possible collision damage to existing spacecrafts and even light pollution, which could in time destroy our ability to view the cosmos from Earth. A new satellite tool, AstriaGraph, allows you to view all items orbiting our Earth (including space debris) in real time.

Here at Thred, we’ve showcased the ways in which several companies are already working to overcome the issue of space clutter.

One of them, funded by a Japanese-UK space company, includes an autonomous satellite equipped with a hefty magnet. Complete with sensors and a docking plate, it is capable of locating and collecting discarded space equipment from previous missions.

Further efforts to increase space sustainability come from Kyoto University, where students are in the process of testing satellites built from wood. Though still in the early stages of research, this innovative work could see us into the future of sustainable space exploration.

It is clear that global military forces will continue expanding their presence beyond our atmosphere in the interest of national security.

However, an equal amount of attention will need to be placed on making sure the outer space environments in which this takes place are free from a build-up of flying debris, which could – in theory – pose more of a risk to satellites than remote controlled lasers fired from Earth.

 

This article was originally written by Jessica Byrne. ‘I’m Jessica, a recent graduate from the University of the Arts London. I’m passionate about sustainable fashion and beauty, racial and gender equality and protecting our oceans. When I’m not curating Spotify playlists, you can find me watching every existing documentary on my latest subject of interest or hanging out with friends and practicing 35mm film photography.’ View her LinkedIn and Twitter

@thredmag

Love our partners.

Wait, don't go yet!
Sign up to our newsletter
Thred straight to your inbox 
(what could be better)
Click right here!

Accessibility