10:16
TEDxToronto

Natalie Panek: Let's clean up the space junk orbiting Earth

Filmed:

Our lives depend on a world we can't see: the satellite infrastructure we use every day for information, entertainment, communication and so much more. But Earth orbit isn't a limitless resource, and the problem of space debris will get worse without a significant change to our behavior. Natalie Panek challenges us to consider the environmental impact of the satellites we rely on. Our orbital environment is breathtakingly beautiful and our gateway to exploration, she says. It's up to us to keep it that way.

- Rocket scientist, explorer
Natalie Panek's work is focused on the idea that accountability for our environments never goes away. Full bio

Our lives depend
00:13
on a world we can't see.
00:14
Think about your week so far.
00:17
Have you watched TV, used GPS,
00:19
checked the weather or even ate a meal?
00:22
These many things
that enable our daily lives
00:25
rely either directly or indirectly
00:28
on satellites.
00:31
And while we often take for granted
00:33
the services that satellites provide us,
00:35
the satellites themselves
deserve our attention
00:37
as they are leaving a lasting mark
00:40
on the space they occupy.
00:42
People around the world
rely on satellite infrastructure every day
00:44
for information, entertainment
and to communicate.
00:48
There's agricultural
and environmental monitoring,
00:52
Internet connectivity, navigation.
00:55
Satellites even play a role
00:58
in the operation of our financial
and energy markets.
01:00
But these satellites that we rely on
01:04
day in and day out
01:06
have a finite life.
01:07
They might run out of propellant,
01:09
they could malfunction,
01:11
or they may just naturally
reach the end of their mission life.
01:13
At this point, these satellites
effectively become space junk,
01:16
cluttering the orbital environment.
01:20
So imagine you're driving down the highway
on a beautiful, sunny day
01:24
out running errands.
01:27
You've got your music cranked,
01:29
your windows rolled down,
01:30
with the cool breeze
blowing through your hair.
01:32
Feels nice, right?
01:35
Everything is going smoothly
01:36
until suddenly
your car stutters and stalls
01:39
right in the middle of the highway.
01:41
So now you have no choice
but to abandon your car
01:44
where it is on the highway.
01:47
Maybe you were lucky enough
01:50
to be able to move it out of the way
and into a shoulder lane
01:51
so that it's out of the way
of other traffic.
01:54
A couple of hours ago,
01:56
your car was a useful machine
that you relied on in your everyday life.
01:58
Now, it's a useless hunk of metal
02:03
taking up space in a valuable
transportation network.
02:05
And imagine international roadways
all cluttered with broken down vehicles
02:10
that are just getting in the way
of other traffic.
02:14
And imagine the debris
that would be strewn everywhere
02:17
if a collision actually happened,
02:20
thousands of smaller pieces of debris
02:22
becoming new obstacles.
02:25
This is the paradigm
of the satellite industry.
02:27
Satellites that are no longer working
02:31
are often left to deorbit
over many, many years,
02:33
or only moved out of the way
as a temporary solution.
02:37
And there are no
international laws in space
02:41
to enforce us to clean up after ourselves.
02:43
So the world's first satellite, Sputnik I,
02:46
was launched in 1957,
02:49
and in that year, there were
only a total of three launch attempts.
02:51
Decades later and dozens of countries
from all around the world
02:55
have launched thousands
of more satellites into orbit,
02:59
and the frequency of launches
is only going to increase in the future,
03:02
especially if you consider
things like the possibility
03:06
of 900-plus satellite
constellations being launched.
03:09
Now, we send satellites
to different orbits
03:13
depending on what they're needed for.
03:15
One of the most common places
we send satellites
03:17
is the low Earth orbit,
03:20
possibly to image the surface of Earth
03:21
at up to about 2,000 kilometers altitude.
03:23
Satellites there are naturally buffeted
by Earth's atmosphere,
03:26
so their orbits naturally decay,
03:30
and they'll eventually burn up,
03:32
probably within a couple of decades.
03:33
Another common place we send satellites
03:36
is the geostationary orbit
03:38
at about 35,000 kilometers altitude.
03:40
Satellites there remain in the same place
above Earth as the Earth rotates,
03:43
which enables things like communications
or television broadcast, for example.
03:47
Satellites in high orbits like these
could remain there for centuries.
03:52
And then there's the orbit
coined "the graveyard,"
03:58
the ominous junk or disposal orbits,
04:01
where some satellites
are intentionally placed
04:04
at the end of their life
04:06
so that they're out of the way
of common operational orbits.
04:08
Of the nearly 7,000 satellites
launched since the late 1950s,
04:13
only about one in seven
is currently operational,
04:17
and in addition to the satellites
that are no longer working,
04:21
there's also hundreds of thousands
of marble-sized debris
04:24
and millions of paint chip-sized debris
04:28
that are also orbiting around the Earth.
04:30
Space debris is a major risk
to space missions,
04:33
but also to the satellites
that we rely on each and every day.
04:35
Now, because space debris and junk
has become increasingly worrisome,
04:40
there have been some national
and international efforts
04:44
to develop technical standards
04:46
to help us limit the generation
of additional debris.
04:48
So for example, there are recommendations
04:51
for those low-Earth orbiting spacecraft
04:53
to be made to deorbit in under 25 years,
04:56
but that's still a really long time,
04:59
especially if a satellite
hasn't been working for years.
05:01
There's also mandates
for those dead geostationary spacecraft
05:05
to be moved into a graveyard orbit.
05:08
But neither of these guidelines
is binding under international law,
05:11
and the understanding is that they will be
implemented through national mechanisms.
05:15
These guidelines are also not long-term,
05:20
they're not proactive,
05:22
nor do they address
the debris that's already up there.
05:24
They're only in place
to limit the future creation of debris.
05:27
Space junk is no one's responsibility.
05:31
Now, Mount Everest is actually
an interesting comparison
05:35
of a new approach to how
we interact with our environments,
05:38
as it's often given the dubious honor
05:42
of being the world's highest garbage dump.
05:44
Decades after the first conquest
of the world's highest peak,
05:48
tons of rubbish left behind by climbers
05:51
has started to raise concern,
05:53
and you may have read in the news
that there's speculation
05:55
that Nepal will crack down on mountaineers
05:58
with stricter enforcement
of penalties and legal obligations.
06:00
The goal, of course,
is to persuade climbers
06:04
to clean up after themselves,
06:07
so maybe local not-for-profits will pay
climbers who bring down extra waste,
06:09
or expeditions might organize
voluntary cleanup trips.
06:14
And yet still many climbers feel
06:18
that independent groups
should police themselves.
06:20
There's no simple or easy answer,
06:24
and even well-intentioned
efforts at conservation
06:27
often run into problems.
06:30
But that doesn't mean
we shouldn't do everything in our power
06:32
to protect the environments
that we rely and depend on,
06:35
and like Everest, the remote location
and inadequate infrastructure
06:39
of the orbital environment
06:43
make waste disposal a challenging problem.
06:45
But we simply cannot reach new heights
06:48
and create an even higher garbage dump,
06:50
one that's out of this world.
06:53
The reality of space
06:57
is that if a component
on a satellite breaks down,
06:58
there really are limited
opportunities for repairs,
07:01
and only at great cost.
07:04
But what if we were smarter
about how we designed satellites?
07:06
What if all satellites,
07:10
regardless of what country
they were built in,
07:11
had to be standardized in some way
07:14
for recycling, servicing
07:16
or active deorbiting?
07:18
What if there actually were
international laws with teeth
07:20
that enforced end-of-life
disposal of satellites
07:24
instead of moving them out of the way
07:27
as a temporary solution?
07:29
Or maybe satellite manufacturers
need to be charged a deposit
07:31
to even launch a satellite into orbit,
07:34
and that deposit would only be returned
07:37
if the satellite was disposed of properly
07:39
or if they cleaned up
some quota of debris.
07:42
Or maybe a satellite
needs to have technology on board
07:45
to help accelerate deorbit.
07:48
There are some encouraging signs.
07:50
The UK's TechDemoSat-1,
launched in 2014, for example,
07:53
was designed for end-of-life disposal
07:57
via a small drag sail.
07:59
This works for the satellite
because it's small,
08:01
but satellites that are higher
or in larger orbits
08:04
or are larger altogether,
like the size of school buses,
08:08
will require other disposal options.
08:11
So maybe you get into things
like high-powered lasers
08:13
or tugging using nets or tethers,
08:16
as crazy as those sound in the short term.
08:18
And then one really cool possibility
08:21
is the idea of orbital tow trucks
or space mechanics.
08:23
Imagine if a robotic arm
08:27
on some sort of space tow truck
08:28
could fix the broken components
on a satellite,
08:30
making them usable again.
08:32
Or what if that very same robotic arm
08:35
could refuel the propellant tank
on a spacecraft
08:37
that relies on chemical propulsion
08:39
just like you or I would refuel
the fuel tanks on our cars?
08:41
Robotic repair and maintenance
08:45
could extend the lives of hundreds
of satellites orbiting around the Earth.
08:47
Whatever the disposal
or cleanup options we come up with,
08:52
it's clearly not just a technical problem.
08:55
There's also complex space laws
and politics that we have to sort out.
08:58
Simply put, we haven't found a way
to use space sustainably yet.
09:03
Exploring, innovating
to change the way we live and work
09:08
are what we as humans do,
09:11
and in space exploration,
09:13
we're literally moving
beyond the boundaries of Earth.
09:15
But as we push thresholds
in the name of learning and innovation,
09:18
we must remember that accountability
for our environments never goes away.
09:22
There is without doubt congestion
in the low Earth and geostationary orbits,
09:28
and we cannot keep
launching new satellites
09:32
to replace the ones that have broken down
09:35
without doing something about them first,
09:37
just like we would never
leave a broken down car
09:39
in the middle of the highway.
09:42
Next time you use your phone,
09:43
check the weather or use your GPS,
09:45
think about the satellite technologies
that make those activities possible.
09:48
But also think about the very impact
09:52
that the satellites have
on the environment surrounding Earth,
09:54
and help spread the message
that together we must reduce our impact.
09:57
Earth orbit is breathtakingly beautiful
10:02
and our gateway to exploration.
10:04
It's up to us to keep it that way.
10:07
Thank you.
10:11
(Applause)
10:12

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About the Speaker:

Natalie Panek - Rocket scientist, explorer
Natalie Panek's work is focused on the idea that accountability for our environments never goes away.

Why you should listen

Natalie Panek's love of space and aviation led her to obtain a private pilot's license, design and subsequently drive a solar-powered car across North America, and build space robotics. She has participated in internships at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center and at NASA's Ames Research Center, where she worked on a mission to Mars. With degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Panek has contributed to a number of space projects including MDA's satellite servicing initiative and ESA's 2020 ExoMars rover program. She currently works in Mission Systems at MDA's robotics and automation division, on Canadian space robotics and other space exploration programs.

Panek founded her website, thePanekRoom, to encourage women to pursue challenging careers in non-traditional fields and explore the outdoors. She was featured on the editorial site "Women You Should Know" as a STEM Rock Star who is revolutionizing how we think about women in tech and Canada's Financial Post describes Panel as "a vocal advocate for women in technology." She is also a member of the prestigious Explorer's Club and a Fellow of Royal Canadian Geographic Society. PANEK is the 2013 recipient of the University of Calgary Graduate of the Last Decade Award and the Northern Lights Award Foundation 2013 Rising Star in aerospace. She also joins an elite group of women as one of WXN's Top 100 Most Powerful Women (2014), Forbes' 30 Under 30 in Manufacturing and Industry (2015), Flare's inaugural 30 Under 30 list (2015) and one of Canada's Greatest Women Explorers by Canadian Geographic (2016).

(Photo: Geneviève Charbonneau)

More profile about the speaker
Natalie Panek | Speaker | TED.com