Befouling the Final Frontier


Idealists may cringe, and not only because the video begins with ‘‘Space, the final frontier,’’ a phrase that already belongs to someone. But Deloitte is right when it says, ‘‘Space has never been more accessible or rife with potential.’’ In terms of accessibility, technological and financial barriers to getting a satellite into orbit have plummeted. NASA outsources its resupply missions to commercial operators; the I.S.S. will soon sport a commercial module; and the seeds of space tourism seem finally ready to sprout. And in terms of potential? The potential for wonder and scientific discovery in space is there as it ever was, if you seek it. But there is a new potential, rising as the star of the I.S.S. sets. As the Deloitte video puts it: ‘‘We are at the dawn of a new era, where exploration gives rise to economics, and possibility turns the corner toward profitability.’’

Earth orbit is no longer the realm of innovation and discovery. It’s a resource up for grabs, and it is being grabbed with impunity. Deloitte projects a possible $312-billion-a-year economy in low Earth orbit by 2035. ‘‘We are on the cusp of enabling a vibrant LEO economy,’’ the company declares, ‘‘provided the right investment, incentivization and intervention efforts occur.’’ And of course Deloitte offers its services to grease those efforts.

The commercialization of LEO is in some ways proof that the I.S.S. has succeeded in its mission. One of the station’s stated goals is to facilitate deep-space exploration, with research into new space technologies and astronaut safety. Now NASA turns its sights to those deeper-space aims: returning to the moon in, hopefully, 2024, and putting a human on Mars at some point after. If you squint into the distance, an interplanetary future for humanity is in sight. But for all that the moon and Mars are targets for eventual future human settlement, the relative ease of reaching our own planetary orbit has already expanded our grasp into space. We’re there — for better and, undoubtedly, for worse.

When the first segment of the I.S.S. was launched, in 1998, there were about 600 satellites in orbit, a bit more than 200 of which were circling in low Earth orbit. Almost all of those were government satellites, both military and nonmilitary projects — space science, weather observation and so on — and almost all from the United States and U.S.S.R. LEO stretches up to about 1,200 miles above Earth’s surface. It’s where Sputnik flew, and the space shuttles, and where Hubble orbits still today. But when businesses started launching satellites, they focused on geosynchronous orbit. Much higher than LEO, at roughly 22,000 miles above Earth, a satellite in geosynchronous orbit has a consistent view of one hemisphere of the planet; it’s only in the last decade or so, with changing approaches to telecommunications and imaging in orbit, that commercial activity in LEO took off. In the 1990s, in fact, with the end of the Cold War, the number of satellites in LEO dropped for a bit. But all the advances in technology that the Cold War spurred — from solar power for satellites to global telecommunications — wouldn’t sit fallow for long; there was science to do, and profit to generate.


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