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Though it’s all but invisible to us Earthlings, the skies surrounding us are growing increasingly cluttered with junk.
Approximately 90 percent of the hardware launched into space malfunctions and turns into useless and dangerous debris, according to Moriba Jah, who spoke at Inman Connect Las Vegas.
Jah earned a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering Sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-founded Privateer Space. He is a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and is on a mission to clean up space junk.
“Much in the way that we have explored land and polluted the land, the ocean, the air, we’re doing with space,” he said on Thursday.
Part of the problem is caused by the lack of coordination between the nations and private companies responsible for launching rockets into space — there is no air traffic control for space, effectively.
“Basically, Elon [Musk] is launching 60 satellites every three weeks,” Jah said. “It’s not that launching the satellites in of itself is bad, but it’s being done in an uncoordinated and unplanned fashion.”
This results in broken machinery or even small scraps of metal or paint rotating the earth at dangerous speeds. Those scraps can do serious damage to functional satellites, some of which are starting to be used to provide internet connection on earth. It could also become an even more dangerous problem once the fledging space tourism industry becomes more accessible.
“There is no space device that prevents any piece of junk from slamming into a satellite that’s providing a service,” he said. “And then it’s game over because we don’t have these satellites sitting on shelves waiting to be launched.”
“When satellites die, there is no offramp per se,” he added. “It still keeps going at very high speeds, up to seven times the speed of a bullet.”
Privateer Space is trying to solve that problem through its software called Wayfinder which tracks every piece of machinery launched into space, locates it on a map, and labels whether it’s functional or space junk. The idea is to create a centralized database of all the objects in the earth’s atmosphere.
“We don’t have one database that tells us everything we’re trying to track in space,” he said. “I’ve been developing that because I want to create something like a Zillow equivalent for space.”
The unregulated frontier that space junk exists in could start to have real-world effects for those of us on Earth, Jah said, noting that it’s predicted that a Chinese rocket body the size of a school bus may soon fall out of space and land somewhere near Northern California.
Innovative strategies are more important than ever in the effort to preserve our planet and the galaxy it inhabits, according to Jah.
“We have to do stuff differently, we can’t keep doing what we do in how we explore land, ocean, air, now space,” he said. “We shouldn’t be considering ourselves just passengers on spaceship Earth, we should consider ourselves crew.”