the room has become a trash can

Between the race for space tourism, a place of dreams or fears and an essential outpost of scientific research, space today is a place that is less and less accessible. But who says human activity (capitalist), says pollution. Waste that potentially orbits international teams and satellite systems around the planet. Dossier on space pollution, but also our current relationship with satellites.

Situation: as the Crew Dragon capsule, with the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet on board, makes its way to the International Space Station ISS, an object is placed on its orbit with the risk of collision. It’s a broken satellite. Base Houston orders the crews on board to put on their suits and proceed to the shelter area. No, it’s not a movie scene, but the astronauts’ new everyday life. Here a missile had been fired from Russia to pulverize the satellite. The explosion produced 1,500 pieces of waste, just as many potentially deadly objects that spin without restriction in the same orbit as the ISS, some pass less than a mile from the space station.

Today, the space around the Earth is crowded with nearly 3,000 out of service satellites, and more than 35,000 pieces of debris measuring more than 10 cm are floating in weightlessness. According to Thomas Pesquet, this waste is constantly monitored by the centers on earth.

“On this new waste we do not actually have much information, but by following them on the radar from the ground, we calculate their orbit around a few orbits in advance, and as soon as they pass less than 10 km from the station, Take our precautions, though well 10 km still gives a small margin. “

Space, an open landfill?

Luisa Innocenti, Head of the Clean Space Program at the European Space Agency (ESA), being asked the question on the set of French cultureon the occasion of their monthly report #SaveThePresentcentered on the great ecological challenges of this century, in collaboration with Le Parisien, Science and Junior Life and the review Uzbek & Rica.

“The room has become a rubbish bin, Yes. Not the whole space, but the lanes we use the most. These lanes are contaminated by the objects that were left there at the end of their lives.

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“Just as men threw their bottles into the ocean, we left our satellites there.” To In contrast to the bottles thrown over the railings of the ships, the specialist is concerned about something of a completely different scale: the risk of explosion of obsolete satellites. In fact, the abandoned satellite, and especially its battery system, will heat up, and if it explodes, it will generate a cloud of dirt so many more objects are left weightless around the Earth.

To the question of whether it is possible to correct assess the amount of waste in the room, Luisa Innocenti answers that there actually is very clear numbers on the one hand and estimates on the other.

For the evaluation, we thus assess that we are on more than 36,000 waste items measured over 10 cm. These objects can be perfectly captured and tracked by ground-based radars, so space agencies know where they are and never lose sight of them. It is within this framework of constant monitoring that the agencies warn and organize with the astronauts, space stations, satellites and their governing agency when there is a risk of impact.

There is also really small waste, that is, those that are less than a centimeter, 1.5 cm in pinch. We’re talking about a small screw, a bolt, a piece of metal … It is estimated that there are more than 350 million of these objects. Due to their small size, these are not the ones that worry astronauts the most. The surface of the ISS is also filled with these influences.

No, the most dangerous is the waste in between: them between 1 cm and 10 cm. Both too small to be perfectly captured and monitored by radar, but whose collision may have enough impact to cause satellite loss.

Luisa Innocenti still laughs at the astronauts’ ease, as when she asked them about the risk of a collision, she answered for the majority that the likelihood of impact was just as minimal, and that the part that “worried” them was the most in their space adventure actually lifted. The astronauts thus have several procedures and are constantly under surveillance of the Earth, which coordinates the movement of the ISS in relation to their radar, and which, if the risk of collision is actually greater than what is considered to be disturbing, the astronauts evacuate with Soyuz. Therefore, for the ESA expert, there is very little risk to astronauts. On the other hand, they may lose satellites.

So can we clean up?

To this question, Luisa Innocenti first responds that before we think about cleaning up the room, we should already stop polluting the room. “There is no need to remove one satellite to leave another.” The core of the problem of space pollution thus lies in dealing with the cessation of satellites.

“It’s the same problem on Earth: we build and produce, but we still have problems integrating upstream in production, what do we do with this production when we no longer need it. ”

Today, there are just over 5,000 satellites still in operation around the Earth. But since the beginning of the story of the Roman conquest, approximately 12,000 satellites have been launched. Normally, a satellite in the regulations at the end of its life must be desorbed within 25 years. What we do know is that only 20% of them really are.

“There are several reasons for this, answers Luisa Innocenti. One of them is the time delay: the satellites at the end of their life, which are to be dismantled, are therefore quite old, say they are ten years or more. But the awareness that we were in the process of polluting space is new. So beware: it is year after year that scientists realized this and warned: but this is not about the consciousness of scientists, but about all the others. : agencies, governments, etc. “

“The second reason, and this still poses a problem for us, is this: we launch satellites because they are useful to us, there is an interest, whether it is scientific, commercial or otherwise. Because of its applicability, it is used until the last minute. We use it and we use it like that until the day we fail. And there, oh dear, we can no longer deorbit it. It is therefore necessary to be able to “kill” a satellite in some way before it fails. And it is this decision-making that is very difficult to coordinate, because there will always be an interest somewhere.

Carole Deniel is also invited on the subject. She was a former researcher at the CNRS and the Naval Research Laboratory (USA), and is now responsible for coordinating space programs related to air pollution and greenhouse gas issues on behalf of the French space agency, CNES. The expert has other fears: yes, we are witnessing the ever-increasing appetite in placeas shown by the last journey for the richest man on the planet and head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. But in addition to burning a lot of resources for a solo trip, the multi-billionaire has the ambition to launch about 3,200 satellites into space, and his colleague Elon Musk has announced that he wants to launch 42,000 Space-X. A race for space tourism that predicts more destruction than ever before.

“Scientifically, it is clear in public bodies that there is a growing need for satellites, says Carole Deniel, for scientists and many other activities, but more specifically for all scientific bodies working with the environment. Environmental parameters are now within reach of satellites thanks to advanced technology that now makes it possible to measure environmental parameters and in particular to monitor the climate crisis.

European programs, as Copernicus, multiplies in this perspective of meteorological and environmental studies. Example: it is comparing data received from Guard posts that we can measure the disappearance of ice at the poles. These observations have been made for at least twenty years. The advantage of satellites is that they see everywhere, all the time, even the most isolated areas. But what is the use of this monitoring, if the denial remains total, what is more than the fact that it still involves cultivating that polluting model in our losses?

The International Space Station (ISS) over Earth in 2015. Photo: Common Domain

The case of ammonia

As a part of spatial monitoring of pollution on Earth, CNRS and LATMOS, Atmospheres, Environments and Space Observations Laboratory, with Cathy Clerbaux as research leader, actually working on something that we do not hear a little, if at all, in the media: ammonia. MetOpthe satellite monitoring this data, and The IASI instrument on board, built by CNES, measures ammonia levels in the atmosphere and reveals instructive data.

“With the team, when we measured this data, we said to ourselves, yes, we see a signal that we are not used to – that is, different from the gases we normally measure, carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and so on. It was ammonia. Ammonia is strongly associated with the use of fertilizers and intensive agriculture. The signals we picked up were located where there were giant cattle farms or larger manure spreads. There we are used to measuring pollution over cities, that was it over remote and isolated land. Today we were able to map ammonia, and we can zoom in on places on Earth and see the source of the emissions, the fertilizer factories, the intensive farms … ”

Why we talk about ammonia: because it is he who is the origin of phenomena such as acid rain, the invasion of green algae, blue algae, and which also has consequences measured by the WHO on health.

“Researchers put their finger on problems that we did not necessarily anticipate, answers Carole Deniel. Apparently, the ammonia problem is something that has clearly been underestimated. But with this data, now that we have the facts written down on paper, we can hope to get things moving. ”

Gaining knowledge about this data is also become aware of the disagreements of the leaders. Disagreements between actions taken in response to problems that require far greater actions to resolve. One thinks in particular of the failure at COP26 in Glasgow, where the commitments made, which are otherwise only declarative, are so inappropriate with the ecological crisis that they have not deceived anyone.

– Moro


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