Now we are managing to pollute space
A near miss occurred on October 16th, 2020. Two pieces of low orbit space junk passed within twelve meters of each other, generating a ten percent chance of collision. The intersecting orbits escaped a crash but highlighted humanity’s love of trash and junk. Yes, we are now polluting outer space with our discarded items, which once served a purpose but are now defunct.
When something is useful, we establish strict laws regarding ownership and rights of usage. If my car battery died and I slipped next door to retrieved yours from under the hood of your car, you could press charges of theft. After all, you paid for the battery, and the law grants you exclusive right to use the particular battery you purchased. For years, it faithfully starts your car each morning, taking you to work or helping tend to morning errands. But one day, the battery dies. It is no longer useful to you, and your rights of ownership are now a burden. Regular trash pickup won’t take it, and the recycling center is inconveniently ten miles away. Perhaps that ditch in the woods behind your lot is a convenient resting place — problem solved.
Of course, the battery will eventually leak lead into the ground, and perhaps some local kids will find it to play with, but this is no longer your concern. You have taken the accepted route used by much of the world — protect your possessions as long as they are useful, but make them someone else’s problem when their useful life is over. Paying for a useful item makes sense, but paying to properly dispose of a useless item rubs people the wrong way. We forget that ownership entails both rights and responsibilities. Disposal of lead-acid batteries also is one of clean-energy’s dirty secrets.
The battery industry consumes about 80 percent of all global lead production. Also, lead-acid battery production is growing in many areas of the world due to demand from solar micro-grid installations. Micro-grids often service rural areas where connections to national electricity grids are either unavailable or unstable. Micro-grids face on-demand issues since they can’t generate electricity at night. They cannot blend the output from multiple power plants and electricity sources to manage demand as national grids do. Their only option is to store the electricity, and lead-acid batteries are the cheapest source for meeting those storage needs.
Lead-acid batteries have a life cycle of two to five years. Disposal and recycling of these used batteries is a gaping hole in the friendly smile of solar power. Countries like the USA consolidate disposal to a dozen or so large facilities that operate on a scale where safe recycling occurs at a reasonable cost. But, this is not the case in developing countries, and inefficient recycling or dumping is the alternative answer.
Batteries and more
It doesn’t stop with batteries. We have all seen the pictures with vast stretches of open ocean cluttered by floating islands of plastic. Plastics are also showing up on ocean bottoms and in groundwater supplies. We love the convenience of using cheap disposable plastic products, but no one really wants the responsibility and cost of recycling or proper disposal. We take the very human decision to throw them out and make them someone else’s problem. We have gotten our use from the product, now let someone else worry about the trash.
Superfund sites exist because past economics supported business decisions to bury toxic waste instead of neutralizing it. The cost of proper disposal would have been high. Letting taxpayers pay to take care of the problem years later meant higher profits for the owners and shareholders at the time — good business sense?
But what do lead-acid batteries and superfund sites have to do with space rockets? Notably, at some point in time, they all become junk.
Rockets, satellites, and cars
I live in an incorporated area, and my home is in a neighborhood with HOA deed restrictions. If one of my cars died and I left it sitting and rusting in my front yard, both the City and the HOA would quickly be at my front door demanding I remove the vehicle and dispose of it. If I simply take it down the road and leave it beside the interstate, the police would track me down, fine me, and demand removal to a licensed facility.
There are reasonable legal expectations for cars in incorporated areas, and ownership comes with the added responsibility of removal or disposal. However, you are often still free to let your junk and trash pile up for display to any passers-by in rural areas.
Space is evidently more like rural America than urban areas. The recent near-miss involved a Russian military satellite and a Chinese rocket stage. Between the two, the combined mass was 6,170 pounds, and they were approaching each other at a relative velocity of 9.1 miles per second. To visualize this event, imagine two cars approaching each other, with each car traveling at a speed of 16,218 miles per hour. We are talking about one hellacious collision. I wouldn’t want part of that mess falling from the sky on my home town.
This near-miss occurred about 600 miles above the earth’s surface over the Weddell sea. The Chinese rocket stage is discarded junk from a 1999 launch, and the Russian satellite was put into orbit in 1989 but is now completely dead. Neither object can receive signals or navigate safely back to the surface.
Unfortunately for us folks living on the earth’s surface, there are no HOAs in space. Perhaps low orbit space will be the next big junkyard for us earthlings, so we can continue on our merry way, cutting costs by leaving our trash for future generations to clean up.
Experts Watch in Horror as 2 Dead Satellites Are on Track For a Potential Collision (by Michelle Starr; Science Alert)
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