There's nothing more fascinating as a phenomenon of the laws of physics, nor horrifying in the cycle of its genesis and destructive effects as orbital debris.
When I've tried to share this view of "space junk," my listener would imagine cutting a hard baguette, and recall the amount of flaky crumbs that fall from it. Then, imagine that this baguette is a large rocket launching into space, separating during its launch and releasing lots of "crumbs" in the form of screws and paint chips into orbit. Also consider that these seemingly benign "crumbs" are now lethal bullets traveling at 5 miles per second, shooting through the same area of space several times a day for many years to come.
Rather than ask anyone to think about bread in space again, I'll just have to ask if anyone has seen the movie Gravity, as I hope many do. The film introduces a much-needed change in consciousness, given that our Earth-based human experience is not conducive to creative thinking about orbital debris. Indeed, the film contained several implausible plot elements, such as the wrong locations of various spacecraft and the ability of astronauts to move between them. As a one-time practitioner, I can imagine that many other guidance, navigation, and controls engineers are probably quite offended.
The film makes up for its inaccuracies with stunning visualizations of Newton's laws in space. The plot features a fictional scenario drawing upon some very real ideas, including the Kessler Syndrome: a scenario where the destruction of a spacecraft or satellite generates more debris which destroys other satellites, debris from which in turn destroys others, and so on, leading to a cascading destruction of orbital objects. Eventually, this scenario would render critical parts of Earth orbit permanently unusable, as it did in the fiction of Gravity.
But in reality, softer versions of debris collision scenarios have actually played out many times over, and the worst is yet to come.
Space is one of the hardest global policy issues, and one where a failure of imagination can create irreparable ruin. For example, a 2007 anti-satellite missile launch by China created a debris cloud that will last for centuries and consistently rain down close to other satellites. But with most other debris, it's difficult to know which country generated it, and which country is liable for collisions between objects of unknown origin. Though the largest owners of known debris by volume are the United States, Russia, and China, the largest owner by mass is Russia by far. That's because Russia has many more dead satellites in orbit than it does operable ones, although there's still international confusion over when dead satellites should qualify as debris. More debris collision events, like one that occurred between a U.S. and Russian satellite in 2009, are waiting to happen. As more inexperienced countries like India operate in space more frequently, the likelihood of collisions will increase along with the overall volume of debris.
Capable scientists ensure that the threat to human life is low. But the threat of debris to human quality of life is assured. Communication and sensing equipment circling the Earth is a fragile system that keeps us globally connected, safely aware of environmental change (including weather), and ready to seize transformative scientific discoveries.
It's hard to imagine what the containment of human civilization feels like. But after we feel the effects of an unusable space environment following an orbital debris crisis, it will be too late to imagine its prevention.
Fortunately, the United States has led international space policy innovation. Through a series of debris mitigation guidelines, including better launch procedures (think crumb-less baguettes) and rules for de-orbiting old satellites, existing space-farers will reduce the future generation of debris. Unfortunately, this does nothing for the existing debris, the millions of destructive bullets circling the planet daily introduced by human activity since 1957.
How do we remove debris? Using 2013 technology, not in any economically feasible way. And who pays for it? With 2013 international norms, not in any legally feasible way either.
The solution to debris removal is a long journey, but requires immediate action. The U.S. should fund a technology demonstrator vehicle to remove one major piece of debris to show that it's possible at a scalable cost, and learn from the experience. The Hubble Space Telescope won't last beyond 2020, and is thus a great candidate for the U.S. to classify as "debris" and remove from orbit, and lead the world by example.
This would kick off two much needed innovation processes. First, it would invite more of the right people to develop cost-effective means and methods to accomplish large-scale debris removal in a collaborative way. Second, it would prompt serious action around developing a comprehensive international policy for debris removal, particularly to revise 1960s era treaties.
Global policy problems have complicated scientific basis, but must be confronted before irreversible crises occur. The film Gravity provides the mental capacity for its viewer to envision an actual orbital debris crisis, a failure of policy, and the stunting of civilizational growth. My hope is that the film may also inspire future technology and policy innovators to prevent all of these.