What if a Skylab Fell on It? The Fears that Make the Space Landfill

Jenn Henry
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law
For Space Law Society

Recently, a six-ton chunk of space trash made headlines as it hurtled toward Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (better known as “NASA”) could not estimate with certainty when or where the remains of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (a weather satellite launched in 1991, prosaically nicknamed “UARS”) would fall: Friday, September 23, plus or minus one day, in any range between 57°N and 57°S—essentially, everywhere but Antarctica was potentially in the path of the schoolbus-sized trash.

Predictions ran wild. Will it hit Chile? Will it hit Blackacre?1 Will it hit me?2 In the end, the debris reportedly fell on nobody, instead reentering somewhere over the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Why is this important? Fears about space debris shape space policy. Space policy, in turn, shapes the way space is imagined and used. And, in the words of a NASA website, some areas of space are a “special natural resource.” The geostationary orbit (“GEO,” where many television and other communications satellites operate) is so special that the equatorial countries beneath it unsuccessfully claimed the GEO as their countries’ natural resource in 1976. In the same way that Rocky Mountain National Park’s special qualities depend on it not being covered in trash, 3 the Earth’s orbits can only stay special if they are not flooded with Frisbee-sized debris. It is more than a matter of aesthetics: the orbits will only function if satellites are able to move through them in a relatively unimpeded fashion.

The global network of space insurance companies (and their lawyers), satellite operating companies (and their lawyers), satellite manufacturers (and their lawyers), legislatures and regulatory agencies generating this space landfill is complex – too complex for me to digest and write about in this 500-word Voicearticle – but an often overlooked part of this network is the media and public opinion. The more we come to rely on the space beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, the more we need to pay attention to it, and the more important it will be for us to think critically about our interactions with it. This space is invisible to us; we are reminded of its omnipresence only in passing, when our TVs or GPS receivers lose a satellite signal, or during the few days when space shuttles take off or land. Even the food we eat depends on satellites functioning properly. Given the importance of outer space and its invisibility, we need to shift our focus and look at space through a wider lens. Unless we pay attention to the full story of the functioning of space when the sky is not falling to the Earth, even to the boring details of space regulation, this space might (continue to?) be made in a way that disadvantages the powerless in favor of military and corporate interests. As space law develops, it will be important for us to envision Earth orbits as part of our planet, as a place that is more than an imagined space for nationalistic Cold War chest beating and science fiction plots.

  1. With apologies to Professor Leslie’s law school colleague, whose words, “What if a Skylab fell on it?” will likely live in perpetuity.
  2. I admit to entertaining this thought.
  3. It is more beautiful, my mother does not trip on discarded beer cans when she hikes, etc.

Jenn Henry writes in the Space Law Society space this week, but the views expressed are her own.