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Dear readers,

Human beings have always been exceedingly good at making earthly messes—and exceedingly bad at cleaning them up. Take the recently released International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which concludes that we have already pumped so much greenhouse gas into the air that even if we shut off the tailpipes and smokestacks now, we would still be on a path to exceed 1.5°C of warming over pre-industrial levels within the next 20 years.

What’s true on Earth is true in space, as a timely editorial in Nature points out this week. Ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, spacefaring nations and private companies have been firing greater and greater numbers of payloads into orbit, leading to a larger and larger belt of spent rocket stages, functioning and defunct satellites and swarms of bolts, scraps, paint chips and other small but high-speed ordnance orbiting Earth.

According to a 2021 white paper released by NASA, there are currently at least 26,000 pieces of orbiting junk that are the size of a softball or larger and that could destroy a satellite—or a crewed spacecraft—on impact. There are also more than 500,000 objects the size of a marble that could cause severe damage to any object they strike, and 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit like a bullet.

The problem will only grow worse in the future as private companies like SpaceX launch constellations of thousands of small satellites that are intended to improve broadband coverage on Earth. Cleaning up the mess—somehow sweeping the debris from orbit—is beyond current technology. Instead, as the Nature editorial argues, what the world needs is to follow the example of the global cooperation in air traffic control that emerged in the first half of the last century, when it became clear that ever-more crowded skies would lead to ever-more deadly accidents if the international community didn't coordinate the movement of all the planes.

Forming such an international body for space debris—which could share information at least on the larger trackable objects—would best be accomplished by the United Nations. As it happens, on Aug. 25, the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will be meeting and could use that opportunity to begin talks on such a plan. As yet, there is no such topic on the agenda, but there could be if the delegates chose—and there should be if the delegates are wise. It took our species millions of years to evolve to the point that we could go to space at all. It’s taken us just 60 years to make a mess of the place. We can do better.

—Jeffrey Kluger

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IMAGE OF THE WEEK
Perseid Meteor Shower
NASA/Bill Ingalls

In the event you missed the Perseid meteor shower, NASA provides this evocative image—a 30-second exposure taken Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.


WHAT WE'RE READING

Lunar Spacesuits on Hold

You know that feeling when you’ve got a special occasion coming and you’ve got nothing to wear? Well NASA does too—in a very big way. Ever since the Trump Administration set 2024 as the target date for NASA’s Artemis program to have American astronauts back on the moon, the space agency has been racing to try to stick that ambitious landing. By last year it became clear that the target was likely out of reach, not least because while the rocket and the lunar orbiter needed for the trip are almost ready to fly, the lunar lander has not yet been fully designed, much less built.

Now, as SpaceNews reports, all hope for 2024 has effectively been abandoned, as NASA’s Office of the Inspector General released its findings that the spacesuits for the mission will not be ready until at least April of 2025. The reasons for the delay are the usual mix of unexpected technical setbacks and always-to-be-expected funding cuts. Also contributing to the slowdown is the pandemic, which kept workers home and delayed suit manufacturing and testing. Even as teams get back to work they will face other challenges as new specifications have reduced the amount of cargo the lunar lander will be able to lift, requiring the suit’s weight to be cut from a maximum permissible 186.6 kg (411 lbs) to 177.1 kg (390 lbs). If that still seems like a lot, remember that that’s the suit’s weight on Earth. Under the more forgiving gravity of the moon, it will be just a sixth as heavy.

Ads from Orbit

You knew it was coming. There’s seemingly no place on the planet safe from advertising and now, it seems, the same will be true about places off the planet. As Space.com, NPR and Business Insider report, a small Canadian startup named Geometric Energy Corp. has just inked a deal with SpaceX to launch a cubesat to orbit sometime in 2022 that will be able to beam commercials from space. The satellite, measuring just 10 cm (4 in.) to a side, will include a small video screen capable of displaying logos, images and commercial or personal messages. Once in space, it will deploy a selfie stick that will train its camera on the screen and beam the images to Twitch and YouTube.

Private customers will be able to buy space and time on the screen, designing their own messages and choosing how long they will run. As for limits on the types of messages people can create? Not happening. "I'm trying to achieve something that can democratize access to space and allow for decentralized participation," Samuel Reid, the CEO of GEC, told Business Insider. "Hopefully, people don't waste money on something inappropriate, insulting or offensive."

Dodging a Bullet

There’s no telling how many asteroids are out there that could be taking a bead on Earth, but NASA tracks thousands of so called near-Earth objects (NEOs)—or asteroids that have at least a theoretical chance of striking us. One of the ones that causes the most concern is Bennu, a 524 m (1,722 ft) wide rock that will be making regular swings by our planet in the centuries to come, with the next close encounter in 2135. On that pass, current trajectory calculations call for Bennu to miss us by a comfortable margin, but asteroid watchers play a long game and, as NASA reports, a new paper published in the journal Icarus has now calculated the odds of a collision on future passes.

The researchers relied on computer models, as well as observations made by the Deep Space Network—a worldwide array of radio antennas—to predict Bennu’s movements. So how much danger are we in from the asteroid? Not much, it turns out. During a close pass projected to happen on Sept. 24, 2182, the asteroid has just a 1 in 2,700 (0.037%) estimated chance of hitting us. The overall risk through the year 2300 is slightly higher, but still just 1 in 1,750 (0.057%).

How to Throw Away a Space Station

We built it and one day we’ll have to junk it—and that day could come as soon as 2029. The it in question is the International Space Station, the football-field-sized vehicle that has been occupied by astronauts and cosmonauts for more than 20 years and will, before long, reach the end of its useful life. But as UPI reports, there are new questions surrounding the disposal process.

According to a plan drawn up in 2019, the destruction of the ISS will be carried out by a Russian Progress Cargo vehicle that would use its thrusters to slow the station, causing it to fall back into the atmosphere. Air friction will incinerate much of the station and the rest would be targeted to fall in a spot in the Pacific Ocean known as Point Nemo, farther from land than any other place in any earthly ocean. It’s a simple plan but concerns now arise as to whether Russia will do the job—and if they are willing, whether they can be trusted to do it safely.

The space station collaboration agreement between the U.S. and Russia expires in 2024 and there has been talk from Moscow about abandoning the partnership after that in favor of building its own station. What’s more, a July 29 docking of a new Russian module with the ISS raised concerns when errant firings by the module’s thrusters threw the station briefly out of orientation. A similar problem with a Progress spacecraft during the deorbit procedure could target the station toward populated areas. If Russia doesn't do the job, another disposal vehicle—likely an American or Japanese cargo vessel—would have to be used.


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8, and the new space novel Holdout. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. This week's edition was edited by Elijah Wolfson.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

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