Plans to spring-clean space junk orbiting Earth could result in the loss of irreplaceable historical artefacts, warns Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Adelaide. The researcher, who has previously called for space junk to be World Heritage listed, says it’s time to assess the value of some of the millions of objects currently orbiting Earth.
Space junk ranges from tiny scraps just millimetres in size to whole satellites. While some space junk undergoes an “automatic clean-up regime” by burning up when it re-enters the atmosphere, other items need to be physically removed.
Current proposals include using ground-based lasers to put objects off orbit and speed the rate of their burn-up, sending out ‘space tugs’ as roving garbage collectors or using tethers to rope and haul in bits of space debris.
Among the items that should recognised for their heritage value are the Vanguard One satellite, launched in 1958 and the oldest human object in space, and FedSat, the Australian designed and built satellite.
Preserving items like these could provide evidence of a nation’s presence in space or help reconstruct a history of space exploration, says Gorman.