5 mins read 10 Feb 2022

Highlights of ISU 'Space Junk' Adelaide Conference 2022

The International Space University Adelaide Conference of 2022 was packed with stellar speakers who dug deep into the complex issue of space junk. 

Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.

Across nine hours on the 4th and 5th of February this year, the International Space University (ISU) Adelaide Conference delved deep into the timely topic of space junk - the debris and dead satellites which orbit the Earth. Hosted by Alice Gorman and Christian Thaler-Wolski, the conference heard from dozens of speakers, ranging from environmentalists, to space industry experts, to space agencies. The conversations were fascinating, the networking productive, and the audience raised many insightful questions.  

Custodians of Space

A plot from AstriaGraph showing the current orbits of space junk orbiting the Earth. Credit: University of Texas.

The main theme that ran throughout the conference was how space junk was an issue of cost, both to the environment and in money. Space junk consists of the debris and dead satellites which orbit the Earth, crowding our skies and potentially colliding with other satellites and spacecraft. With over 40,000 more satellites planned to be launched in the coming future, space junk needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, both from an environmental and from a commercial point of view. It’s a matter of motivation.   

From the philosophical side of the space junk issue, several panellists and keynote speakers brought up the notion of ‘custodianship versus ownership’ when it came to space junk and the pollution of space. Australians are quite used to hearing the word ‘custodian’ when it comes to Indigenous rights and acknowledgement of country, but do we really know what that means? 

Space as an environment is tied up in complex legal ideas of ownership (which was further discussed in the ‘Space Debris: Law and Regulation’ panel), or a lack thereof. As outlined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, space itself is not owned by any one nation, but every satellite, every little piece of debris, is owned by the nation which launched it. However, this idea of ownership does not equate to custodianship. 

This idea was echoed in the panel ‘A Tragedy of the Commons’, where one of the main themes was ‘rights versus responsibility’. As discussed during the panel, in terms of having ‘rights’ to space, the space environment is only important because it has value (namely commercial). On the other hand, approaching space junk from a place of custodianship and responsibility, space inherently has value and is important to humanity because it is a place of inspiration and knowledge, and ultimately is part of our ecosystem. 

A Place of Inspiration and Knowledge

The space sector has always been a major source of technological innovation and inspiration. And with the advent of space junk and its potentially dangerous effects, innovation and inspiration are key to taking responsibility for this situation.  

One particularly exciting part of the ISU Adelaide Conference this year was the ‘Research Projects Presentations’, where many new projects were discussed. Douglas Hayman from CSIRO talked about how existing technology could be used to sense and track space junk, including the Parkes Radio Telescope and the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA). At the other end of the spectrum, Gregory Cohen from Western Sydney University outlined his research into using neuromorphic engineering to develop biology-inspired sensors. And in a unique take on the situation, University of Sydney student Clarissa Luk presented her research which is tackling how the regulation of engineering practices could transform how responsibility for the creation and mitigation of space junk is approached. 

Regulatory solutions such as those discussed by Clarissa were also addressed in ‘The Bottom Line of Space Business: Environmental and Sustainability Goals’ panel. In particular, Minoo Rathnasabapathy, a research engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, brought up her institution’s ‘Space Sustainability Rating (SSR)’ project. This project is developing and looking to implement a sustainability rating system (similar to what you find on fridges and other home appliances) to incentivise companies to implement more sustainable practices.  

Projects like this which aim to incentivise sustainable action approach the issue of space junk from a capitalist perspective. When it comes down to the bottom line, as discussed at large during the conference, cost is a major driving factor when it comes to addressing space junk. Some companies will seek cheaper technology than sustainable solutions unless there is incentive to do otherwise, research into sustainable technology and solutions requires funding, and funding relies on motivating the institutions which supply money to support research into space junk. But to reference a popular quote from Carl Sagan, if we are made of starstuff, do we not then have a responsibility (and therefore the motivation) to look after that which we are a part of? 

As stated earlier the main theme of the ISU Adelaide Conference this year, as succinctly phrased by Moriba Jah, keynote speaker and space environmentalist from the University of Texas, was that we should consider the consequences of ‘seeing ourselves as stewards of the environment instead of owners… [the problem of space junk] does not get solved if people don’t feel empathy’.    

Video Credit: University of Western Sydney