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Outer Space as an Environment

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VA 24.05 Sustainable SpaceI may not be going to outer space, but I will be going to Bonn to talk about outer space, which is pretty great, too. 24 May, to be specific. CASSIS (the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies) at Bonn University is organizing a lecture series called „Reach for the Stars“ and they’ve invited me to come and give a talk about an environmental perspective on outer space.

Here’s the pitch:

The problem of space debris has been known to experts and politicians for decades. As early as 1978, the dangers of a collision cascade of satellites and the resulting clouds of debris were described, and the so-called „Kessler syndrome“ of an Earth orbit unusable due to space debris has been part of the standard vocabulary of the relevant expert community ever since. Nevertheless, efforts to curb the problem of space debris have been insufficient to date. Investments, practical incentives and regulatory structures for the debris mitigation and removal lag far behind what would be needed for a long-term, sustainable use of Earth orbit.

On the contrary, the problem is further exacerbated by the massive increase in the use of Low Earth Orbit since around 2019. With companies like Starlink sending gigantic constellations of small satellites into orbit, the number of objects there has been increasing at an almost unprecedented rate. However, the carrying capacity of the orbits is finite – the risk of destructive collisions is constantly increasing.

Starting from this diagnosis, the lecture will outline possibilities for a better way of dealing with space debris. The recommendations are based on the normative conviction that we should also understand outer space as an environment that can be damaged and degraded by human action. As a proposed solution, I argue that we should not wait for the creation of new intergovernmental organisations and treaties, but to rely more on polycentric governance. These approaches recognise the diversity of space actors and empower them to find their own decentralised regulations, e.g. on space traffic management or the development of a common situation picture.

If you can make it Bonn, say hi! You can find all the details as well as the rest of the (pretty impressive) programme on the CASSIS website.

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