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Disposing of e-waste in space

25 March 2020 News

According to BBC, there are over half a million pieces of debris floating around the Earth’s orbit. Most debris within the atmosphere are lost parts from space crafts, disused rocket stages or waste from astronauts. The Earth is currently facing a climate emergency due to increasing greenhouse gasses, loss of natural resources and rising sea levels.

As of now, there are minimal laws on disposing waste into the atmosphere. Does this mean that we can solve all our waste problems by disposing them into space? Within this article, I am going to explain the advantages and disadvantages of disposing waste in space and whether it is becoming the latest e-waste landfill...

The Earth is quickly running out of waste storage which is causing numerous problems for wildlife – especially in the ocean. Many small marine animals consume waste in order to fulfil their hunger and survive. However, most of the waste which is consumed (such as plastic) is extremely harmful for the wildlife and decreases the species’ population. According to ‘Two Oceans Aquarium’, all seven species of endangered sea turtles get entangled or ingest plastic. As well as this, 50-80% of dead sea turtles have been found with plastic inside them. We humans generate around 40 million tons of electronic waste every year, according to ‘The World Counts’.

Can debris fall from space?

The answer to this is – yes! According to Nesdis, on average, a total of between 200-400 tracked objects enter Earth’s atmosphere every year. Most debris falling from space is either burnt during the transition from space to earth or disintegrate through the atmosphere.

Dangers of disposing e-waste into space

Let’s start with human dangers of disposing waste into space. Every year, only a few astronauts get the opportunity to travel into space due to the cost and safety restrictions. If there were masses of debris (waste) within the atmosphere, astronauts would be in danger because their suits aren’t designed to protect them from debris traveling at moderate speeds. According to NASA, space waste can reach speeds of 29 000 kilometres per hour. Therefore, if debris was to collide with other debris, it could potentially create more debris from impact which could cause more hazards to astronauts.

Another danger of disposing e-waste into space would be the debris colliding with satellites, causing a loss of cellphone communications, GPS, Internet and coordinated airfare. Currently, there are about 4700 satellites still in space, but only an approximate 1800 are still working. One of these 1800 satellites could become damaged due to e-waste debris colliding into it.

According to ‘Popular Mechanics’, it would cost around $200 million to launch an Ariane V rocket and get its 7000 kilograms of payload into a stable point in Earth orbit.

Should we clean up space?

According to ‘iNews’, there is approximately 8000 tonnes of space junk circulating Earth. Space trash is dangerous for aircrafts and satellites due to potential collision problems. This problem has been widely recognised by many space agencies – so much so that companies that launch satellites have been taking steps such as deorbiting satellites when their missions are finished.

According to ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’, tests of technologies to remove space debris by capturing pieces with a net or harpoon have been made. Proposed constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink (4409 satellites) and Amazon.com’s Project Kuiper (3236 satellites), which would greatly increase the number of satellites in orbit, have had to include space debris mitigation plans when seeking approval from regulatory bodies.

According to National Geographic, in 2009, nearly 500 miles above Siberia, two satellites collided at some 36 000 km/h, bursting into a cloud of thousands of pieces of debris. Perhaps if we were able to remove non-functional satellites, we could prevent collisions like this happening?

Advantages of disposing e-waste to space

One advantage of disposing waste into space would be less earth area needed for landfills. To this day, landfills across the globe are overcrowded and hazardous to wildlife and humans. So much so that waste from landfills is finding its way into the oceans and springs. On average, plastic takes around 450 years to decompose – around 5 generations worth. Therefore, many people would agree that it would be worthwhile to simply dispose of the waste in space rather than keeping it on Earth.

What is being done to clean up space?

According to National Geographic, JAXA, Japan's space agency, is testing an electronic space whip that stretches six football fields long, known as the electrodynamic tether (EDT). The electrified line, nearly 700 metres long, is capped with a 20 kg weight. When deployed, it's intended to knock debris out of orbit, sending it to burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Not only this – there are talks of giant magnets in production to bring in all the non-used satellites and debris.




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