Can we hope for junk-free Space?

Leslie in Year 11 discusses the increasing threat of junk in space orbit and therefore the significance of and urgency in removal of such junk, and whether a new experiment, led by the Surrey Space Centre, will provide a potential solution to the crowded orbit.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the rising interest in outer space has resulted in an uncountable amount of space debris. This under-reported phenomenon, also known as space junk or space waste, is the cluttering of the universe with man-made objects, and it has potentially dangerous consequences. But why should it capture people’s attention globally?

Hundreds and thousands of unused satellites from all over the world and fragments of spacecraft (including rocket stages and paint flakes) are in the same orbit, together with the functioning spacecraft. This is because many pieces of unwanted space debris take a long time, even decades, to deorbit and fall back into earth. Clearly, due to rising global interest in space exploration, the chances of collision are growing ever greater.

A report from the U.S. National Research Council in 2011 warned NASA that the ‘amount of orbiting space debris was at a critical level…enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures’. More than half a decade has passed since, and the removal of space debris definitely seems urgent.

A key solution to this issue is the removal of space waste from the atmosphere; this is important as even tiny particles of less than 1cm can have dramatic effects due to the high speed at which they travel and the risk of collisions. Perhaps surprisingly, these particles are a major threat to space walking astronauts and humans aboard spacecraft. Whilst it is important to acknowledge that collisions are unlikely due to space being unimaginably huge, the possible consequences could be dramatic, rendering it absolutely essential to diminish the growing threat posed by space debris.

To demonstrate this point, less than two years ago Sentinel-1A suffered an impact, where an object slammed into one of the solar panels and caused a dent of nearly half meter across. Had the main spacecraft been hit, it would have resulted in serious damage. Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre), stated, ‘We appear to have survived this unexpected collision with minimal impact on this particular satellite. We may not be so fortuitous next time.’

The leading astrophysics agencies’ announcements have emphasized the critical quantities of space debris and although space travel has always had risks, the rising amounts of space junk puts existing spacecraft under a continuous threat, especially as millions of small particles are untraceable. Encouraging further experiments focusing on the removal of them is necessary, as it is urgently important to come up with a solution and this is putting many space agencies under pressure to find the best solution to this ongoing problem.

The solution may be closer to home than we think! Not too far away from Wimbledon, the ongoing mission RemoveDebris at Surrey Space Centre aims to capture and destroy space debris in low cost initiatives, which will hopefully reduce the risk of future collisions. The experiment, planned to be launched this year, consists of four ways to capture space debris. If these methods turn out to be successful, it will be a step towards a safer orbit for the future. It includes: a net experiment, a VBN (Vision based navigation) experiment, a harpoon and deployable target experiment and a DragSail. The RemoveDebris will carry its own junk and measure the success of their methods in space.

The initial experiment involves capturing the debris by firing a net. When the CubeSat (which is released by RemoveDebris to try to capture the objects), is at a distance of 7m, the net will fire and hit the target. The large surface area enables the CubeSat to deorbit at an accelerated rate, which will hopefully remove the debris from space.

Airbus, an international aerospace company, is involved in a harpoon target experiment and many scientists believe that this could in fact provide the solution to space junk. In the RemoveDebris experiment, a small miniature harpoon is planned to be on board. A DragSail, also on board, is to quicken the de-orbit of the satellite when deployed and to speed up the rate of burning in the Earth’s atmosphere, explained by Surrey Space Centre.

The success of this experiment in removing space debris will lessen the risk of collision. It will create a safer environment for functioning satellites and any space vehicles, especially those with humans aboard. This is an absolutely necessary precaution to take before taking further steps in space exploration, and the success of this experiment will provide a new, innovative way to increase safety in outer space.

Despite this experiment providing hope for a better solution to the problem of space debris, how long it will take to make the orbit safe again is questionable and yet to be answered. Nevertheless, the many experiments being undertaken to help tackle this pressing problem provide some consolation. Although it seems like we are extremely far away from junk-free space, it might not be an impossibility.

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An environmental education: more than ‘saving the world’?


Nicola Higgs, Head of Geography, investigates the importance of an environmental education and challenges us to think about the concept in a more complex way.

Environmental education is not simply about ‘saving the whale’ or indeed ‘saving the world’. It is equally about the development of an appreciation of the wonders and beauty of the world, and a sense of wanting to save it – in short, the development of ecological thinking or of an environmental ethic (Palmer, 1998, p. 267).

Environmental education as described by Joy Palmer above is a relatively young, but increasingly significant, area of study. The importance of developing means to live more sustainably, conserving natural resources, and preserving the Earth for its future inhabitants are at the heart of environmental education. However, it does not always hold the priority in education systems that this urgency advocates, and it seems to constantly be battling for its position against the “intricacies and demands of education in general rather than be a core element of it” (Palmer, 1998, p. ix).

The 1968 UNESCO Conference called for all education systems at all levels to provide space and resources in the curriculum to learn about the environment and to create a global awareness of environmental problems. The definition of environmental education was agreed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)/UNESCO in 1970:

…the process of recognising values and clarifying concepts in order to develop skills and attitudes necessary to understand and appreciate the inter-relatedness among man, his culture, his biophysical surroundings. Environmental education also entails practice in decision-making and self-formulation of a code of behaviour about issues concerning environmental quality (IUCN, 1970).

And in 1975 the UN founded the International Environmental Education Programme, which had 3 clear objectives:

  1. Foster clear awareness of and concern about economic, social, political, and ecological inter-dependence in urban and rural areas
  2. Provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment
  3. Create new patterns of behaviour of individual, groups and society as a whole towards the environment

This strong international focus on environmental issues and environmental education reflected increasing public interest on the environment. Fast-forward to 2018 and environmental education has, in many ways, been deprioritised within national and international school curriculums across the world, due to competing tensions between the significance of the environment compared to economic and social development (Tippins, Mueller, van Eijck, & Adams, 2010).

The folly in this is that in order that people and societies can continue to function and develop we must look to find balance in the human-environment relationship. As educators we have a duty to ensure that students are equipped to handle the 21st century world which they will inherit. Understanding the way in which space-place-environment operates as a conceptual and procedural nexus, each inseparable from the other, will be crucial in achieving the sustainable development ideal. Teaching ‘about the environment’ is no longer enough, teaching ‘for sustainability’ has the potential to engage and reinforce the tools with which our girls will enter the world and lead the change we need to see (Corney & Middleton, 1996).

An approach that we have adopted in the Geography Department at Wimbledon High School is to ensure schemes of learning at all key stages build on the concept of sustainable development, that is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland Report, 1987). We expose our students to a variety of real-world scenarios in which they could have an impact in the future.

For example, Year 8 have recently debated the construction of a wind energy farm having first designed and built a prototype wind turbine in the STEAM room, Year 9 will evaluate options for development of the low-income country Zambia in the face of an increasingly interconnected world. Year 10 and 11 explore the tensions between our quickly urbanising global population and the growing size of ecological footprints beyond the boundary of the city, whilst proposing sustainable solutions to issues of water stress and water scarcity in the UK, which, as Londoners, will be critically important to them.

As a Geographer I feel a sense of duty to ensure that my students have as full an appreciation and understanding of environmental issues as I am able to help them discover. The complexity of environmental problems, opinions and solutions is vast, and our programmes of education at WHS aim to inform, empower and inspire:

Our task as environmental educators in the 21st century is to recognise this complexity of experience, and to assist the overall process – by striving to implement programmes of education that inform our students about the complexities of the environment in which they are growing up; empower them to address environment and development issues in their own lives; and provide them with opportunities to be inspired by the joys, wonder and mysteries of the natural world and human achievement (Palmer, 1998, p. 277).

Environmental education is vital for our future, it could well be the most important thing we teach our young people. Subjects and disciplines change and evolve, as societies and politics and belief systems and ideologies change and evolve, and priorities for people and countries change.  The future belongs to these young people; they have a right to be able to fully engage in it, and above all to be well informed about it.

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References and further reading:

Corney, G., & Middleton, N. (1996). Teaching environmental issues in schools and higher education. In E. Rawling & R. Daugherty (Eds.), Geography into the twenty-first century (pp. 323–338). Chichester: Wiley.

Palmer, J. A. (1998). Environmental education in the 21st century: theory, practice, progress and promise. London: Routledge.

Tippins, D. J., Mueller, M. P., van Eijck, M., & Adams, J. D. (Eds.). (2010). Cultural studies and Environmentalism. The Confluence of EcoJustic, Place-based (Science) Education, and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. New York: Springer.

Ted Talk – ‘Let the Environment Guide our Development (Johan Rockstrom)