Professor David Noone is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Auckland. Dr Philipp Sueltrop is the Chief Technical Officer at Kea Aerospace. They discuss the ethics of keeping the space environment clean, and who is responsible.
Questions for discussion:
- David compares the size of space with the Earth’s atmosphere. What does he mean by the statement, “Well we kind of thought the same thing about CO2”?
- Philipp compares space to the oceans. What does he mean by his statement that no one feels responsible for it?
- Who do you think should be responsible for what is put in space?
Professor David Noone
Buckley-Glavish Professor of Climate Physics, Department of Physics, University of Auckland
How we maintain and manage as pristine a space environment as we can, it comes in some ways to this idea of the ethics of who has responsibility and oversight of the utilisation of space. It’s very easy to say, “Well, space is quite big and so it doesn’t really matter how much junk we put there.” We kind of thought the same thing about CO2.
When spacecraft reach their end – they may run out of fuel or have problems – what happens to that lump of garbage that’s floating around in space? Do we leave it there? Or does it come down? Where do they come down? What happens to them where they fall? Who’s gonna take responsibility if they fall on me?
Dr Philipp Sueltrop
Chief Technical Officer, Kea Aerospace
Whether we’re capable of keeping space clean is a problem of human ethics and our desire to make too much money. We have to create things that we consider is essential – they create waste and no one really wants to pay for cleaning up, especially in a competitive market.
Space is like the ocean – like no one really feels responsible for it, and no one owns a certain part of the space. Sometimes they try to regulate it, and certain countries completely ignore it.
It’s more a human question I think the same as space travel. Like colonising Mars only makes sense if people figure out how to take care of this planet first, because otherwise it’s like telling your child, like, “Oh, you don’t need to clean up your room today. You just get a new one tomorrow. So don’t worry.”
Professor David Noone, University of Auckland
Dr Philipp Sueltrop, Kea Aerospace
Animation of space debris destroying satellites, space debris around Earth and footage of a satellite burning up on re-entry to Earth, European Space Agency (ESA)
Astronaut drops a shield while working on the exterior of the International Space Station, NASA
Animation of manufacture and production waste, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, CC BY 3.0
Plastic pollution in the ocean, The Plastic Vagabond, CC BY 3.0
Signing of Outer Space Treaty 1964–65, ITU Pictures, CC BY 2.0
Plenary, June 2015 meeting of Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), UNIS Vienna, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0