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

Near-Earth Space

Reflexive Events, 1970-2010.

Luca Thanei

Ever since the early 1960s, various sorts of aeronautical remnants keep accumulating in near-Earth space. Spent rocket bodies, frozen propellant particles, collision debris and thousands of satellites that have simply lost their connection to Earth. Today, space agencies estimate that 130,000,000 smaller (<1cm), 1,000,000 medium (1cm - 10cm) and 36,500 larger (>10cm) human-made objects will continue to orbit Earth for up to several hundred years. And because these objects travel at very high speeds (over 7 km/s), even the smallest particles pose a serious threat to satellite services, inhabited space stations and planned missions.

Hence, in just sixty years, an unchecked accumulation of long-lived aeronautical remnants has caused near-Earth space to transform from a yet nameless and promising void into a risky and ever more scarce resource for satellite-based technologies. Considering the fact that space agencies have been monitoring and quantifying near-Earth space's depletion ever since the early 1970s, but have not yet developed any viable solutions to stop it, it does not seem unreasonable to ask more thoroughly about the historical conditions and the concrete mechanisms driving this depletion.

The project will therefore be concerned with events between 1970 and 2010, in which the increasing depletion of near-Earth space became apparent in a sudden, unexpected and consequential manner. With events that abruptly called into question the preceding monitoring and quantification of near-Earth space. With events that critically reflected the space agencies' previous management of the increasing depletion.

From these reflexive events arise questions: What consequences did these sudden appearances of outer space’s depletion have on Earth? How did space agencies and their multilateral committees respond to such events? Where did the monitoring and quantification of said depletion need to be adjusted? Where was this not possible? How were agencies able to regain certainty about the extent of the depletion? Which uncertainties had to be actively suppressed? The dissertation project seeks answers to such questions and hopes to enable new historical perspectives on the current scarcity of outer space.

The project is co-supervised by Prof. Sabine Höhler (KTH Stockholm) and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (doc.ch).