aus: "A FINAL THREAT TO SPACEFLIGHT?", Eichler / Rex, 1990

Near-Earth Space

Depletion of a Resource, 1970-2010.

Luca Thanei

Since the early 1960s, various sorts of aeronautical debris have been accumulating in near-Earth space. Exploding launch vehicles, frozen propellant particles, collision debris and thousands of satellites that have simply lost their connection to Earth. Today, space agencies estimate that 128 million smaller (<1cm), 900,000 medium (1cm - 10cm) and 34,000 larger (>10cm) pieces of debris will continue to orbit the Earth at altitudes between 500 and 1500 kilometers for up to several hundred years. And because these pieces are travelling at very high speeds (up to 10 km/s), even the smallest particles pose a serious threat to current satellite services, inhabited space stations, and planned missions. In short, the accumulation of long-lived space debris has transformed near-Earth outer space from an endless and promising void into a scarce resource.

The assumption that the disintegration of satellites would lead to a depletion of near-Earth space was first voiced within some space agencies as early as the mid-1970s. A short time later, this scarcity could be substantiated with first measurement data. In the course of the 1980s the depletion came ot be institutionalized in and between the various national space agencies. In the mid-1990s it was confirmed by first observed collisions in space, and in the further course of the 2000s, the depletion  manifested itself as an imminent danger for satellite-based technologies.

The depletion of near-Earth space due to the remnants of spaceflight and this depletion's simulatenous scientific monitoring by space agencies have been closely linked for fifty years now. However, useful solutions to the scarcity problem have not yet been found. The decades-old entanglement of near-Earth space's scarcity and its largely inconsequential scientific supervision raises questions: Was the actual scarcity supposed to disappear simply through ever more systematic observation? Is the growing shortage of space an inevitable consequence of diverging durations (service life, observatory expansion, continuance in orbit)? And has the scarcity of space around Earth been (repeatedly) subjected to defusing reinterpretations through the gradual institutionalization of individual "collision risks"? The dissertation project seeks answers to such questions and thus also aims to contribute to a historically informed assessment of current space visions.