While many-sided serious pollution on earth is increasingly seen as an existential threat, it now appears more and more clear that humankind is also increasingly responsible for pollution of space and more prominently the earth’s orbit. This problem has three aspects.
The first aspect relates to space debris or space junk. This can be in the form of dysfunctional satellites or the various junk contributed by them or in the process of launching them. This junk has been increasing rapidly. The number of debris reported to be under observation is around 18000 but the number of smaller debris is much higher. The number of debris longer than 10 cm. is estimated to be around 34000, the debris of the length of 1-10 cm. is 900000 ( 0.9 million) while the number of debris smaller than 1 cm. is estimated to be around 128 million. As even very small objects can result in serious collisions in space , the presence of the smaller debris cannot be ignored.
This number of space debris is set now to increase as never before as the number of satellites in earth’s orbit is entering a pace of unprecedented escalation. This will pose many problems for constructive use of satellites for development purposes by late entering developing countries, apart from increasing the danger of collisions.
The second aspect of space pollution is related to light pollution. This did not become a very serious issue till recently as long as the pace of sending satellites in space was within manageable limits but with the very rapid pace seen recently the situation is changing and the number of satellites in space particularly the lower orbit of earth are likely to multiply by several times within a decade, according to present projections.
In this fast changing situation due to the light emitted by such a large number of satellites scientists have said that problem of light pollution will become serious and some senior astronomers have said that astronomy as practiced so far will be jeopardized badly as it will become difficult to study the space and images as they have done so far due to this excessive light pollution.
Thirdly and most frighteningly space pollution can increase most dreadfully if and when space warfare takes place. Although direct space warfare has not taken place so far but certainly humankind has been moving towards this with a clear escalation of militarization of space at several levels. One indication of how this can contribute to space pollution was available when some tests were taken up by various countries for self-destroying their own dysfunctional satellites using missiles. This led to a big increase in space debris. But this was a very limited case as no hostility against any other country was intended. In the case of actual warfare one can imagine the extent to which space pollution can increase within a very short time.
Clearly a time has come to take effective steps for reducing space pollution. Such steps cannot be delayed any longer as a critical stage has already been reached and we are now entering a phase of unprecedented increase in space pollution.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives. His recent book on survival issues and people’s response titled Planet in Peril has been published by Vitasta, Delhi.