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Waste and recycling in the circular economy

The next frontier of waste: Space

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson once said:

“If I could get one message to you it would be this: The future of this country and the welfare of the free world depends upon our success in space. There is no room in this country for any but a fully cooperative, urgently motivated all-out effort toward space leadership.”

Waste and national security in space represent Rubicon’s next frontier. Space debris is composed of man-made objects orbiting Earth that do not serve a useful function—such as defunct satellites and pieces of rockets used to launch and propel spacecraft. NASA estimates that there are roughly 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the planet today. Solving the space waste crisis is another critical piece to protecting our national security interests, and it is an integral part of America’s current and future infrastructure plans. President Ronald Reagan understood the importance of space in winning the Cold War through his Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars,” an understanding by which we must carry forward today in recognizing the strategic importance of addressing space waste.

Practically speaking, low Earth orbit (LEO) debris poses a threat to the roughly 2,000 active satellites that are critical to the global economy (enabling everything from modern conveniences like cell phones and TVs to national security interests like our nuclear arsenal), not to mention the International Space Station, which has had to maneuver around space waste dozens of times since 1999.7 A recent NASA study estimates that there are currently 8,000 metric tons of debris floating in space, and the amount is growing. This debris began accumulating following the world’s first satellite launch in 1957.8 Unlike on Earth, space waste cannot just be thrown “away”—there is no “away” in space, so debris accumulates by the second. It cannot also be picked up and hauled away like it can on Earth—it travels at approximately 17,500 miles per hour.9 Just a small amount of space waste can immobilize even the most advanced satellites, which could have catastrophic consequences for telecommunications and national security interests.

Symbolically, space waste highlights our globe’s larger, failed approach to disposing of or reusing the waste that we currently emit into our atmosphere. No nation governs or administers its own space waste, and no international body can require its removal.10 With no truer allegory to the “tragedy of the commons,” common space waste exists because of our absence of authority, accountability, and ownership.

To address the problem of space waste, an issue which grows more serious by the day, Rubicon was proud to announce in May 2021 a new initiative called Project Clear Constellation™. The centerpiece of the program is the Clear Constellation competition, a year-long event in which accredited colleges and universities across the country are invited to submit their concepts for solutions that will confront this pressing problem. The submissions will be judged by a panel of experts—Jonathan C. McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Mike Rogers, a former Congressman and now head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress’s National Security Space Program; Marla Geha, a professor and astrophysicist at Yale University; Rick Ambrose, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Space; Nobu Okada, founder of Astroscale; and Nate Morris, founder and CEO of Rubicon. The winning proposal, which will be announced in 2022, will be awarded a cash prize, and their program will commence. This competition will be the stimulus needed to elevate the issue of space waste and drive solutions.