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The price of space clutter: Debris threatens cosmos exploration, Washington’s wallet

Media Contact

Jeff Tyson

President Trump signed a directive on Monday imploring the Defense Department and Commerce Department to develop ways to protect against uncontrolled debris in Earth’s orbit by better tracking objects in space. The best way to address the problem is to remove the largest debris from space — but that won’t be cheap, says former NASA Chief Technologist and Cornell University aerospace engineering professor Mason Peck.

Mason Peck

Professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering

Peck says:

“We’ve known for decades that orbital debris threatens space science and exploration. It represents a hazard that will ground us, keep us from becoming a spacefaring people in the decades to come if we don’t address it now.

"The more bits and pieces that are out there, the more get created as they crash into each other in orbit. And it has already begun. We see it in the number of objects we track, and the increasing number of collisions, few though they are. The best way to stop and, ideally, reverse this trend is to remove the largest objects first. These massive bodies — spent Soviet-era rocket stages and similar items — will become large debris clouds as they inevitably impact other bodies. 

“Like other forms of environmental clean-up, the remedy will cost money. We’re footing the bill for the shortsightedness of a previous generation. In fact, the cost of removing any debris from orbit will likely exceed whatever it costs to put the material into space to begin with.

“There is no commercial incentive to take it on — no real value that a company can extract from removing debris — unless our government, or other countries, sponsor the work.  So, if we take on the problem as a nation, as a species, we had better be prepared for the financial hit.”

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