Ancient Wisdom in the Space Age: Harnessing Indigenous Knowledge for Space Junk Management

Unraveling the Space Junk Problem

When you gaze up at the night sky, you’re probably not thinking about space debris. After all, we’re more used to dealing with litter on terra firma. However, space is not immune to pollution. It’s cluttered with remnants from past explorations – from sizable chunks of rockets to minuscule specks of paint. These orbiting artefacts, zipping around our planet at bullet-like speeds, present a grave danger to satellites and astronauts. The cosmic junkyard is swelling at an alarming rate, thanks in large part to mega-constellations like Starlink. Today, we have around 9,000 satellites orbiting Earth, a number projected to surge to 60,000 by the decade’s end.

Dance of Debris: The Specter of Kessler Syndrome

Ever heard of Kessler Syndrome? Picture a cascading event where a single piece of space junk collides with a satellite, creating more debris that, in turn, strikes other satellites. This potential domino effect could render entire orbits unusable. Thankfully, this space-age doomsday scenario isn’t inevitable, and surprisingly, the key to preventing it might lie in the wisdom of Indigenous and First Nations people.

Space Environmentalism: A New Perspective on an Ancient Resource

When we refer to “space environmentalism,” we’re looking at orbital space as a finite resource. Similar to highways on Earth, orbital paths are specific routes that satellites follow. With defunct satellites and debris occupying these pathways, traffic congestion becomes a real issue. Space environmentalism calls for the protection of these orbital highways, similar to the conservation efforts we practice on Earth.

A Cosmic Catastrophe: The Risks of Ignoring Space Pollution

Just like pollution on Earth, letting space debris multiply unchecked presents significant risks. These dead objects, hurtling around our planet, take up physical space and can collide with operational satellites. This doesn’t just affect the machines. It can disrupt services we critically depend on, like positioning, navigation, timing, communications, and Earth observation. The fact is, the data provided by these “robots in the sky” helps us understand humanity and the world around us more than any other means.

The Old Meeting the New: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Challenges

With the rapid commercialization of space, it’s crucial to approach this expansion holistically. This is where “ancient tek” or traditional ecological knowledge comes in. Indigenous people have long maintained that everything is interconnected. Their belief in stewardship — the responsibility to care for and maintain balance — contrasts starkly with the modern concept of ownership, which prioritizes rights and entitlements. This ancient wisdom could guide us in managing our growing space junk problem.

Orbiting into the Future: Recommendations for Space Sustainability

Efforts are underway to promote sustainable behavior in space. The Space Sustainability Rating, initiated by the World Economic Forum and now managed by Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, seeks to incentivize space operators and governments to commit to better practices.

Advising governments to include Indigenous or First Nation people on their advisory boards could be another effective strategy. These communities have successfully managed their environments for tens of thousands of years, so their insights could prove invaluable in navigating the challenges of space as a finite resource.

It’s time we tuned in to the ancient tek that could inform our high-tech decisions. By embracing this wisdom, we can ensure a sustainable future for our cosmic backyard, transforming space junk from a looming threat into a managed challenge. It’s not just about what we can take from space, but also about what we can give back.

Further reading

Kessler, D. J., and Cour-Palais, B. G. (1978), Collision frequency of artificial satellites: The creation of a debris belt, J. Geophys. Res., 83( A6), 2637– 2646, doi:10.1029/JA083iA06p02637.

Space junk is a huge problem—and it’s only getting bigger – Link

How Do You Clean Up 170 Million Pieces Of Space Junk? – Link

Space Debris and Human Spacecraft – Link

Capturing space junk and bringing it back to Earth – Link