On the social afterlife of space-junk
(University of Edinburgh)
Paper short abstract:
This paper looks into the monitoring and tracking of orbital debris in order to map out some of the new political, economic and technologically mediated relationships coalesced around the growing pollution of the imagined boundary between Earth and space.
Paper long abstract:
Since the late 1950s, Earth's orbit has been populated by an ever increasing number of artificial objects. This imaginary interface between our planet and outer space is crossed, more and more often, by spacecraft operated for a number of different but intertwined purposes (scientific, commercial, military). Despite their functioning is limited to a finite timeframe, their orbital motion, requiring no extra energy to be preserved, keeps on for what seems an endless time. This multitude of artificial objects - from non-functional spacecraft to abandoned launch vehicle stages, or fragmentation debris - both envelopes the planet and stretches human presence into space. Rhetorics of space exploration often present imaginaries in which improved technological capabilities offer solutions to some of the major environmental issues confronted on Earth. Optimal recycling of resources or the terraforming of desert planets are only a few examples in which promises about outer space futures resemble environmental utopias. What can be considered the first stage of human permanent expansion into space shows in fact a different scenario, which does not break up completely with Earthly logics of power, despite offering an opportunity to challenge and rethink them. Space debris is not simply meandering material scattered across a void space. On the contrary, the negotiation of responsibilities, the implementations of monitoring and tracking systems, and the assessment of risks connected to the continuous re-entry on Earth's atmosphere allow the mapping of new subjectivities and new forms of sociality which are often neglected in triumphalist rhetoric of space exploration.
Making Outer Space