As the number of spacecraft flying to the moon increases, people here on Earth will have to think about what happens to all the landings and debris left on the lunar surface and in orbit. The problem: private companies are excluded from the UN Space Treaty
There's a lot of junk on the moon right now—including nearly 100 bags of human waste—and as countries around the world plan trips to the moon, the amount of junk is going to grow, both on the lunar surface and in Earth's orbit.
Last week, India's Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft successfully landed in the south polar region of the moon, making India the fourth country to land on the moon.
As the number of spacecraft flying to the moon increases, people here on Earth will have to think about what happens to all the landings and debris left on the lunar surface and in orbit.
The space is getting filled
It is common to think of space as vast and empty, but the environment near Earth is beginning to fill up. About a hundred lunar missions are planned in the next decade by governments and private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Earth's orbit is even denser than the space between Earth and the Moon. The low orbit is between 150 and 800 kilometers from the earth compared to 380 thousand kilometers that separate us from the moon. There are currently 7,700 low-orbit satellites orbiting the Earth at a height of a few hundreds of kilometers above the Earth. This number could grow to hundreds of thousands by 2027. Many of these satellites will be used to provide internet to developing countries or be used to monitor agriculture and climate on Earth. Companies like SpaceX have dramatically lowered launch costs, which is driving this wave of activity.
The space debris problem
All this activity creates risks and waste. Humans have left a lot of debris on the moon, including spacecraft debris such as rocket boosters from more than 50 spacecraft that crashed on landing, nearly 100 bags of human waste, and various objects such as feathers, golf balls and boots from the Apollo missions. The amount of waste amounts to about 200 tons. Since no one owns the moon, no one is responsible for keeping it clean and tidy.
Debris in Earth's orbit includes inactive spacecraft, used rocket boosters and items discarded by astronauts such as a glove, key and toothbrush. It also includes tiny pieces of debris like paint flakes.
About 23,000 objects larger than 10 cm and about 100 million pieces of debris larger than 1 mm are currently orbiting the satellites. Small pieces of debris may not seem like a big problem, but this debris travels at 27 km/h, ten times faster than a rifle bullet. At this speed, even a paint chip can puncture a space suit or destroy sensitive electronics.
In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler described a scenario where collisions between orbital debris create more debris, and the amount of debris increases exponentially, potentially rendering Earth's orbit unusable. Experts call it "Kessler syndrome".
No one is in charge up there
The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty says that no country can "possess" the moon or any part of it, and that celestial bodies should only be used for peaceful purposes. But the treaty is silent about companies and individuals, and it says nothing about how space resources can or cannot be used.
The UN Moon Treaty of 1979 stated that the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind. However, the United States, Russia and China never signed it, and in 2016 the US Congress created a law that freed the US commercial space industry from restrictions.
Because of its lack of regulation, space debris is an example of the "tragedy of the commons", where many interests have access to a common resource, and it may become depleted and unusable by all, because no interest can stop another interest from overexploiting the resource.
Scientists argue that in order to avoid the tragedy of the commons, the orbiting environment should be recognized as a global domain worthy of protection by the United Nations. The lead author of the Nature paper, which supports the universal patrimony, filed a friend-of-the-court opinion on a case that reached the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in late 2021.
The author and his research partners argued that US environmental regulations should apply to space launch licensing. However, the court refused to rule on the environmental issue because it said the group had no standing in court.
National geopolitical and commercial interests will likely take precedence over interplanetary conservation efforts unless the UN acts. A new agreement may emerge from the work of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, which in May 2023 created a policy document to address the sustainable development of activities in space.
The UN can only regulate the actions of its member states, but it has a project to help member states formulate policies at the national level that promote the sustainable development goals.
NASA created and signed the Artemis Agreements. These agreements are broad but non-binding principles for peaceful cooperation in space. They have been signed by 28 countries, but the list does not include China or Russia. Private companies are not party to the Artemis agreements either, and some space ventures have deep pockets and big ambitions.
The lack of regulation and the current gold rush approach to space exploration means that space debris will continue to accumulate, as will the problems and dangers associated with it.
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