There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth.

Sustainability rating for space could help keep junk out of the sky

Living Lab Radio on WCAI | November 12, 2019

Space exploration and space technology have led to improvements here on Earth. We wrap runners in space blankets at finish lines. Memory foam that once protected astronauts is now found in many of our pillows and mattresses.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says that, “the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all people, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.”

But of course, that hasn’t necessarily been the reality. Danielle Wood wants to change that.

“Space is…really the providence or the heritage of all humans,” Wood told Living Lab Radio. She is an assistant professor leading the Space Enabled Research Group at the M.I.T. Media Lab.

“Ideally, you could see distributions of benefit to people around the world–benefiting from both the services in space and activities in space.”

In that way, space is like the ocean or the atmosphere—places that are shared by all of humanity, she said.

“And they are places that are somewhat fragile to the way that we live as a society,” she added.

Wood’s group at the M.I.T. Media Lab has identified six areas of space technology that have already made contributions to sustainable development. These include satellite positioning, which aids in navigation and accurate timing, and fundamental research.

“There’s a lot of economic research that shows that if you want to be good at innovation, you should be funding basic research in the country,” Wood said. “You’re getting excellent knowledge in your team members, you’re going to have excellent infrastructure for your computing and for data management, and there are many other links to this kind of benefit.”

Space should be treated like a national park or a world heritage site, Wood said. To this end, there’s an effort under the World Economic Forum to create a “space sustainability rating,” similar to LEED certification, dolphin-safe tuna, or rainforest-safe lumber.

“We’d like to have the same kind of positive pattern in the space community,” Wood said.

The rating, which is still in development, will look at whether a satellite is likely to collide others that are already out there and how likely the satellite is to become space debris.

“The issue is that in space today…we have about 2,000 operational satellites now, but there’s about 20,000 pieces of trash that are either old satellites or parts from old rockets,” Wood said. “And many of them are large enough to cause collisions and break into smaller pieces.”

The space sustainability rating will help keep space a more pristine place. We should also think about these values when we think about exploiting resources on the moon, she said.

“I think that future generations deserve to enjoy the moon as the beautiful natural environment that it is today,” she said.

MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
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