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The Atmospheric Wasteland

The Atmospheric Wasteland

Art by Maria Paz Almenara
Art by Maria Paz Almenara

Since Sputnik kicked off the space race, humans have steadily littered Earth’s orbit with derelict satellites, spent rocket stages and bits of space projects gone awry. Burgeoning space industries, private and public, only continue to add to the ever-expanding trash. Though growing private markets may provide more opportunities to explore and access space, the deteriorating situation of space detritus threatens everything from DirecTV and GPS to space travel and basic telecommunication. But our skies cannot be cleaned. Half-baked international laws protect the almost one million pieces of defunct space junk by declaring them private property — unable to be removed, except by whoever put them there.

The story of our orbiting pollution puts a unique spin on the tragedy of the commons. At the height of the Cold War, the United Nations created the Outer Space Treaty, which labeled space the common heritage of mankind. However by designating space an unregulated territory, the international community subjected our skies — like our oceans before them — to pollution through free use. The Outer Space Treaty’s insistence on unlimited property rights, by dictating that every artifact in space belongs to its owner indefinitely, has further compounded the space debris problem, because the United States has no right to remove long-useless pieces of Russian satellites — even though their possible collision with US space technology, Gravity-style, poses a major risk. The “let’s clean it up later” mentality of these ill-conceived laws is the heart of the problem: The international community views space, and its debris, as an obscure topic for Trekkies, not as a serious threat that economists and policy makers should address.


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October 22, 2014

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