Who is accountable for our space junk?

Scientists and accountability have a long history together. Most great inventions have at some point in time created a hazardous byproduct or been put to destructive use, leading their inventors to feel accountable for the damage.


A horrified Oppenheimer, when faced with the terrible evidence of the atomic bomb, famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death., the destroyer of worlds.” Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was distraught at the thought of his legacy being one of destruction. When we take into consideration the current challenges our world is facing – global warming, landfills, plastic toxicity – accountability becomes all the more important.


The most recent scientific sphere to demand responsibility is space.


Recent news reports on space debris – the remains of various space crafts that either imploded on their own or collided with another satellite – show that “millions of pieces of man-made trash are now orbiting the Earth.”


Satellite technology is the foundation upon which many modern conveniences such as communication, navigation, and even national security are based – these satellites are all in danger of collision with the space debris. The US Space Surveillance Network is currently monitoring around 23,000 pieces of space junk, but not all of the debris is detectable, and it only takes a particle as small as a paperclip to cause rapid damage. Only recently, the debris from the 2009 collision between an American commercial communications satellite with a defunct Russian weather satellite forced the crew of the the International Space Station to evacuate to the Soyuz capsule in 2015.


Yet initiative for cleaning up the waste is proving to be a tediously slow process, mostly because it is an expensive one. In many ways, it’s similar to pollution and global warming: ignoring it will have consequences. However, scientists are looking into ways of recycling shuttle parts, which is a start in the right direction.


With the recent emphasis on STEM and encouraging students to study within STEM fields, it is our responsibility as educators also to teach them accountability. It is important that we prepare the next generation not just to take on the opportunities that science has to offer, but the challenges as well. If we can encourage an entire generation to be accountable, then we are by that logic also shaping future leaders who will learn and carry that responsibility: responsibility towards not just finding cleaner, safer and more sustainable ways of living, but also an accountability towards using new scientific inventions for the improvement of the planet and all its inhabitants.

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