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I’m With Stupid – August, 12, 2011

by Todd Hartley

Way to go, people. We’ve done it again. Give ourselves a hand!

We morons have gone and done something I would have sworn was impossible. We weren’t content to just pollute the land, sea and sky. Oh no, not us. We had to go and pollute Space!

Are you kidding me? Space is infinite, and yet we somehow produce so much crap that we’ve managed to pollute it? How is that possible, people? We’re not talking about Staten Island here. It’s Space, for Pete’s sake. It’s much bigger than Staten Island. Once again, I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am with us.

This startling revelation comes in the wake of a proposal of sorts published in the journal Acta Astronautica that would solve “the growing problem of space junk.” Mind you, this isn’t just some minor quandary either, people. Because of us and our trash, “the scope of the problem is enormous,” according to the BBC News.

Because of us and our wasteful ways, there are now 17,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters across littering our low-Earth orbit. I’m not really good with the conversion from metric to normal-people measurements, but I’m pretty sure that’s as big as a Cadillac. I would have thought it would take more than 17,000 Cadillacs to pollute Space, but apparently that’s enough, and now Space is a junkyard. Nice work, people.

The objects, things like spent rockets and aluminum cans that we neglected to recycle, pose a huge threat to satellites, manned space missions and the very International Space Station itself, and they need to be cleaned up pronto.

“The time to act is now,” said Marco Castronuovo, a researcher from the Italian Space Agency (ISA) who authored the paper. “In our opinion, the problem is very challenging, and it’s quite urgent as well.”

To solve the problem, Castronuovo and his colleagues propose that we launch satellites to rendezvous with the largest pieces of junk and stick propellant kits on them that would push them down into the atmosphere, where they would burn up and pollute the air instead. The BBC story didn’t say what would then happen to the satellites, but presumably they would stay in orbit and take the place of the junk they just got rid of.

In this way, the proposal claimed, we could “inexpensively remove five to 10 such objects per year,” which it seems we need to start doing before we all fall victim to Kessler syndrome. This real thing that I didn’t make up was named for the NASA scientist who figured out in 1978 that if pieces of space junk collide with one another they can make thousands of smaller pieces of space junk that can then collide with more space junk in a chain reaction that could make much of low-Earth orbit unusable.

Kessler didn’t say anything about all those objects blocking out the sun, but in 1978 there probably wasn’t that much junk up there. I think it’s safe to assume in 2011 that if Kessler syndrome ever strikes, we’re all in for an extended junklear winter. Even worse, all that debris will reflect the sun’s rays back out into space, contributing to human-caused galactic warming.

The ISA’s plan is nice and all, but I think I have to take issue with their conception of the word “inexpensive.” According to a website I found, a satellite launch can cost anywhere between $50 million and $400 million. Castronuovo must be one rich dude if he thinks that’s inexpensive.

I seem to recall that we have another pressing garbage issue to deal with in the Texas-sized expanse of the Pacific Ocean that’s covered in trash. I imagine we could do a pretty good job of cleaning that one up at a fraction of the cost of a decade’s worth of space junk removal.

Better yet, let’s take all the trash from the Pacific and pack it into the satellites that we use to shoot down the space junk, thus killing two filthy birds with one $50 million stone.

It remains to be seen whether the world’s space-faring nations will adopt the ISA’s plan and start cleaning up space junk on their own, but in the meantime, we can all do our part to help.

If you see any space junk, and you happen to be near a trash can, pick it up and throw it away. Every little bit helps. Most importantly, though, stop throwing our trash out in Space, people. We’re the cause of this problem. We can be the solution.

Todd Hartley’s arms are so strong he can actually throw things into space, but he never would because it’s littering.

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08 2011

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