Moriba Jah: How space junk could compromise satellites we rely on To solve the climate crisis, we need reliable satellites to track carbon emissions and changing weather patterns. Astrodynamicist Moriba Jah says space junk is putting these satellites in jeopardy.

Satellites can monitor climate emissions... but space junk puts them at risk

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On the show today, tech's climate conundrum. It is going to take a global effort to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. And governments and companies are making big promises, but how do we know if they're actually meeting their commitments? What can watch over them to see if they're truly reducing their emissions? Satellites can. Coupled with AI, satellites are one of the most effective monitoring tools. For instance, Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, recently launched MethaneSAT for the Environmental Defense Fund.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ignition and liftoff, Falcon 9.

ZOMORODI: The satellite will monitor the oil and gas industry, specifically spotting methane that might be leaking during fossil fuel production.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: MethaneSAT separation confirmed.

ZOMORODI: And it's not the only one up there.

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GAVIN MCCORMICK: There are now literally thousands of eyes in the sky up above us, and many of them are actually free and open to anyone to use that information.

ZOMORODI: Gavin McCormick is the co-founder of Climate TRACE, a coalition using publicly available images streaming from satellites to detect other emissions.

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MCCORMICK: It's possible actually to get photos every few days of every major power plant in the entire world. And so, my organization, WattTime, and a number of other small NGOs have teamed up to build an artificial intelligence algorithm that can scan visual imagery like this every few days and look without asking the polluters to see how much they are polluting for every power plant in the world.

ZOMORODI: So satellites play a big role in solving the climate crisis. They're also monitoring agriculture, tracking storms, predicting droughts. But as you might suspect, the wonders of technology also come with downsides, and that's where our next guest comes in.

MORIBA JAH: Right now, the end fate of anything we launch is for it to become junk. That is its end state.

ZOMORODI: This is Moriba Jah. He's an astrodynamicist, which means that he studies how objects move in space. He is also a space environmentalist.

JAH: And it's my job to raise awareness and find ways of protecting it from pollution to make it sustainable for future generations.

ZOMORODI: At this point, you may be thinking, though, who cares? Why should we be concerned about pollution in space?

JAH: The critical thing is none of these satellites are protected from getting hit by a piece of junk orbiting the planet and then rendering these services useless.

ZOMORODI: Space junk. As junk collides, it creates more debris that disperses and could damage functioning satellites, including those we rely on every day for things like GPS.

JAH: That blue dot on our cellphone that tells us how to get from point A to point B, Google Maps, planes use this stuff, like, all modes of transportation.

ZOMORODI: Streaming and broadcasting.

JAH: We can have satellite TV dishes.

ZOMORODI: Banking and emergency communications.

JAH: Financial transactions, ATM operations. Communications can be relayed across one part of the globe to us. So we get to understand more about how Mother Earth Gaia works because of satellites than by any other sources of information. If the satellites that provide these services got hit by debris and then were no longer working, talk about global panic and shutdown. Like, that's a bad day.

ZOMORODI: In a minute, what can be done about all that space junk? Today on the show, tech's climate conundrum. You're listening to NPR's TED Radio Hour. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and we'll be right back.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, Tech's Climate Conundrum. We were just talking to astrodynamicist and environmentalist, Moriba Jah. He tracks everything that is orbiting the Earth and says that while satellites are crucial to tracking emissions and gathering climate data, those satellites, and many others are in jeopardy.

JAH: Space can become and is becoming unusable because of this idea of carrying capacity.

ZOMORODI: We may think space goes on forever, but the region we humans use has its limitations.

JAH: We only have so many highways where we put these satellites and they're becoming more and more congested as we're launching more and more things into space. Any given highway can only carry so much traffic safely. And right now we're already seeing people unable to get the sort of services they want out of satellites because they have to be maneuvering out of the way of junk all the time. I mean, the International Space Station probably maneuvers about a dozen times a year out of the way of junk.

ZOMORODI: But when you're calling something junk or debris, what are you referring to? Are you talking about satellites that aren't being used anymore, other things?

JAH: So you have whole satellites, or intact satellites, that just die. You have rocket bodies that were used to deliver some of these satellites to orbit and then fragments all the way down to, like, you know, nuts, bolts, chips of paint. You know, when we are on a highway and you run out of fuel, the car stops moving. In space, when satellites stop working, they don't just slow down. They keep on going at many times the speed of a bullet. Imagine a bunch of fuelless, driverless cars that are going at speed, and we have to now avoid these things. That is what it is like on orbit.

ZOMORODI: Ugh, that sounds crazy dangerous. Like, how many of these things are we talking about?

JAH: Right now, in 2024, we're tracking over 50,000, and the number of working satellites is over 5,000, and over half of those are owned by Elon Musk. So we just hope - our strategy is hope that these things don't run into one of these satellites that we care about.

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JAH: Most of what we launch into orbit never comes back.

ZOMORODI: Moriba Jah continues from the TED stage.

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JAH: Unlike highways on Earth, there are actually no space traffic rules, none whatsoever. What could possibly go wrong with that?

(LAUGHTER)

JAH: Now, what would be really nice is if we had something like a space traffic map that I could look up and see what the current traffic conditions are in space, maybe even predict these. The problem with that, however, is that ask five different people what's going on in orbit, where are things going, and you're probably going to get 10 different answers. It's because information about things on orbit is not commonly shared either.

In the absence of this framework to monitor space actor behavior, to monitor activity in space, where these objects are located to reconcile these inconsistencies and make this knowledge commonplace, we actually risk losing the ability to use space for humanity's benefit. So what if we had a globally accessible, open and transparent space traffic information system that could inform the public of where everything's located to try to keep space safe and sustainable? And what if this system could be used to form evidence-based norms of behavior for these space traffic rules?

Really what we need is more observations, more eyes on the sky. I developed this thing called AstriaGraph. An AstriaGraph is a crowd-sourced database of human-made stuff in space that then led me to make something much nicer and useful to people called Wayfinder. So if people go to, like, wayfinder.privateer.com, they'll see kind of a current map of all these objects in space, and every single dot is a human-made object that's currently orbiting the Earth.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I just went to wayfinder.privateer.com, and it's a rendering of our planet with dots in different colors all around it, particularly, lots of green dots very close to the planet, and then red dots kind of everywhere. What am I seeing?

JAH: Yeah. So things that are in cyan, those are the working satellites, and everything else is garbage. The pink stuff are things that we don't know if they're, like, dead rocket bodies, intact satellites or fragments of stuff. So those are things that we haven't identified, you know, the type of thing, but we know that it's human-based. And then the other things in the legend that you can see is dead satellites, rocket bodies, which are also dead. And, you know, it says, debris. These are fragments, you know, shards and pieces of stuff.

ZOMORODI: Wow. I'm just clicking. I mean, once you get rid of the active satellites, there's still so much to see. There's, as you said, pink - rocket bodies and debris and so many things out there. It's weird. You think of, you know, stars in space and maybe the International Space Station.

JAH: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: But...

JAH: The hope is that by having this become very transparent to the public, people can feel whatever it is that they need to feel - outrage would be great - to say, we need to do something different. And for people to hold their governments accountable for coming together and collaborating to fix this problem. So...

ZOMORODI: That was my next question. Who is responsible then for pulling these satellites, I don't know, back to Earth or making sure that they're just kind of duds and not careening and causing problems for the satellites we do need?

JAH: Yeah. So this is where I have bad news. Nobody. Nobody is cleaning up anything. There is no actual space garbage, you know, retrieval system. The European Space Agency plans on launching a satellite that could clean up debris in 2025 called ClearSpace. And there are a couple of companies, like Astroscale out of Japan. They want to be a junk removal business, but then nobody's willing to pay for that. And the top-three governments responsible for 99% of all the junk are Russia, the United States and China. And none of those three countries are doing anything to clean up any of the debris that currently exists on orbit.

ZOMORODI: I'm curious. With Privateer, is that a private company? Are you thinking like, well, if people won't do it, you know, intergovernmentally, maybe we need to incentivize people - turn this into a business?

JAH: Yeah. So certainly the monitoring and kind of doing a compliance assessment, that's not going to be a lucrative thing. But I'm all about presenting people with the evidence, and I'll let you decide if this is something that makes sense. And if it doesn't, then we need to start holding people accountable. But there's no way to hold people accountable without the evidence. And the thing is, nobody else is just trying to put the evidence out there and make that publicly accessible. We have a pollution problem on the planet, lands, ocean, air, and then you can add space to that.

ZOMORODI: That might be super depressing to people because they might think like, oh, my God, dude. We just - like, we accept that there's a big climate problem here on this planet, but now you're adding all of space to the conundrum (laughter).

JAH: I know, I know.

ZOMORODI: What do you say?

JAH: We, as humanity, fail to accept that we're living in an existential crisis. That's one of the major problems. Many Indigenous people accept that they are in an existential crisis, and the only way through it for them is to have a successful conversation with the environment. Imagine if we did that stuff, kind of holistically said, hey, you know, we need to slow down our decision-making so that we can get feedback from the environment on the unintended consequences of our decisions, then we could actually make environmentally sound decisions that would lead to our sustainability.

And so interestingly enough, within waste management principles, there's something called the circular economy, which is based on principles of reuse and recyclability to prevent pollution. We can apply that to space. If we turned our smarts and our innovation to develop, launch and operate reusable and recyclable satellites and rockets, we wouldn't have to send as much stuff up there because we could recycle and reuse the stuff on orbit, which would greatly diminish the junk that we're creating. We know that we can reuse rockets 'cause Elon has demonstrated that with, you know, SpaceX. And for the things that do have to be single-use, find responsible and environmentally sound ways of disposing of these things, not just abandon them on orbit.

ZOMORODI: So it's not, like, you know, satellites are a disaster. It's really we desperately need these satellites to help us...

JAH: Absolutely.

ZOMORODI: ...Protect our planet, but we need to be just so much smarter about how we use them.

JAH: Exactly. Right now, Elon is launching, on average, more than a dozen satellites every week. It doesn't need to be that. It's like we're in this competition to see who can launch the most amount of satellites, and we are - we're hurting ourselves holistically by behaving that way. If we just took our time, we would realize how to make better decisions for the sustainability of our species.

ZOMORODI: That was Moriba Jah. He's a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, and chief scientist at the company Privateer. You can see his full talk at ted.com.

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