Alright my fellow synapses it’s that time again. Today I want to talk to you about Space debris, that wonderful stuff in orbit that no one has any control of. According to NASA’s website, as of 2013 they believe there to be more than 500,000 individual pieces of manmade debris orbiting the earth. All of them are traveling at speeds of up to 17,500 MPH. So essentially they are massive bullets that never stop (must be powered by Duracell). Currently we have no way to remove the Space debris. Primarily because space law (yes it’s a thing) is so convoluted and poorly written that it doesn’t mention who has the rights to retrieve the debris. To be fair though, when it was written; the concept of retrieving something from orbit was so astronomically improbable; that they just went “eh, we’ll just let it fall to the earth and sort it out when it does”. Of course the problem with that, is that they are in a stable orbit, which means that unless they have a few thousand years for their orbit to decay; then they aren’t coming down unless something bumps into them.
So this creates a big problem for our prospects of space travel. Right now when we launch something into orbit, we first have to see where all of the debris is in that area and wait for a gap in the debris field so our space craft doesn’t get shot to bits on its way up. The other problem we have, comes from trying to keep our satellites safe in orbit. Currently NASA has a system in place for predicting debris travel, which is then used in conjunction with what is known as the “pizza box” (I think NASA finally developed a sense of humor). The pizza box is an imaginary field around satellites and space craft that is essentially used to figure out if the craft is safe or not. If a debris prediction has that debris entering the pizza box at any point, then mission control in Houston and in Moscow, get to work plotting a course adjustment for the craft. This course adjustment is called the “Debris Avoidance Maneuver”. Just when you think their getting clever with naming things, they surprise you with something bland. Anyway, the Debris avoidance maneuver is calculated and then sent to the craft or satellite, this tells them what they need to do to avoid that incoming bullet (this makes me think of a very deadly game of dodgeball).
Once avoided, they continue on their marry way. The problem with this system is the simple fact they have to do this constantly. According to Goddard Space Flight Center’s lists of satellites, there are currently 2,271 actively controlled satellites in our orbit. Every one of them has to play that deadly game of dodgeball on a daily basis. And the game only gets more difficult for Houston and Moscow when we keep sending new satellites up there. Just like with any other game, the more players you have the more crowded it is, and the more you have to look out for. In this case, we currently have to do a bit of a dance in orbit. When we move one satellite or craft out of the way of debris, we could be sending it into a crash course with another. So when we move one, we typically move upwards of 10 or 20. Which then causes another dance to start since we might have moved one of those 20 into a collision course with debris (did I mention that everything in orbit is moving several thousand miles per hour? And that they are doing all of these calculations on a very short timer?).
Hold on, gotta stop my head from spinning. The sheer amount of calculations that have to be made in the course of an hour, just to make sure nothing crashes, is mind boggling. But! There is a simple solution to all of this. Since we have opened space travel up to the individual corporations, we simply let them expand salvaging companies into space. I know what you’re thinking already “but you said that space law doesn’t say who has the rights to the salvage” True, and you get an automatic A+ for paying attention. While the space law doesn’t specifically say who has rights to what. Maritime Law does. According to Maritime Law, any craft or debris that is abandoned in international waters; is essentially up for grabs. And an abandoned craft or debris is anything manmade that has no crew or passengers. So under Maritime Law, all of that space debris is abandoned and therefore anyone who can get to it, can lay a claim to it.
My writer’s senses are tingling again, you’re thinking “Well it’s nice that Maritime Law covers salvaging, but what does that have to do with space?” Good question. It has everything to do with space, let me explain by telling you the definition of international waters. International waters are the areas outside of a nation’s territorial waters, and territorial waters are 12 nautical miles from the nation’s baseline (the coastal floor).
Now this is where it gets interesting. Space’s only defined features are that it begins at approximately 62 miles straight from up from sea level, and that space cannot be claimed as any one nation’s territory. And since International waters are defined as any area outside of the territorial waters. Space itself is technically speaking an extension of the earth’s oceans and thus an extension of international waters. Making Maritime Law valid in space. Meaning, since it has become legal for non-government entities to launch space craft into orbit. There is nothing stopping someone from going into orbit and salvaging to their heart’s content.
So my question for you today is thus. Does this massive loophole actually exist? If it does, should we simply incorporate Maritime Law into Space Law? Also, should we give incentives to companies that clean up our orbit?
That’s all for today fellow synapses. See you in the next topic. Don’t forget to comment below or join in on other discussions over on the forums. Have a good day, and keep learning new things.