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Space Force’s Biggest Job? Picking Up Space Trash

But they’re looking to get out of the garbage business

Heidi Lux
September 17 2021
U.S. Space Force Logo: U.S. Space Force

There’s nothing less glamorous than waste management. But there’s nothing more vital than waste management – at least when space is concerned. The heavens have basically become another landfill, but for fancy space garbage.(Imagine dead satellites instead of old water bottles.) As we travel more and more into space, it becomes vital that we have a plan in place for picking up after ourselves.

One of the biggest obstacles to space tourism isn’t technology, nor is it the impact of space on the human body. It’s not even money. It’s trash. Low-Earth orbit space debris can travel up to a speed of 17,500 mph, making even a paint chip an object of destruction.

Space junk: Shutterstock

While not many people take the Space Force seriously, as evidenced by the Space Force Netflix comedy...

...that doesn’t stop Space Force from taking space trash seriously. The agency is stressing the importance of the need to pick up after ourselves by endorsing the development of commercial systems for removing space debris. In other words, the public sector wants the private sector to pick up the planet’s outer layer of junk.

Why? It’s probably because private enterprises don’t have to deal with the same stringent policy concerns that a government-run-space-trash-pickup would more than likely bump into. Plus, nobody’s going to mistake a corporation for an aggressor the way they would if, say, a paramilitary space operation went around directing satellite traffic.

Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, vice commander of the Space Force’s Space Operations Command, recently spoke at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference about the matter and cautioned that government-led cleanup efforts could make some people believe they’re really a plot to disable satellites. “When you say the military is going to develop a capability to pick up trash or pick up debris, it’s automatically seen as dual use,” she said. 

Civilian cleanup would free up Space Force to pivot towards what it was actually created to do – focusing on “battlespace awareness” and fighting any and all wars that for, some reason, extend to space. It sounds nuts if you think of Moonraker-style battles taking place, but there’s a more down-to-Earth rationale. An increasing amount of our world is space-based (a la a GPS), and actual star wars aren’t going to look like Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star.

Space Force’s plan is to move satellite traffic and cleanup into the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce, not the Department of Defense. But for now, Space Force is sticking with the trash. “We will continue to do the space traffic awareness mission until we are told not to and the Department of Commerce is fully up and capable,” Maj. Gen. Burt said. “But we want them to be successful because we need to get out of that business because the threat is growing. It is critical that, to normalize this domain, we continue to work in that direction.”



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