Space Junk

Lisa Ruth Rand explores the ecosystem of deep space.
June 2013

“Used a satellite today?” It’s a question doctoral student Lisa Ruth Rand in the department of History and Sociology of Science often asks—and the answer might surprise you. Given the growing use of smartphones and tools like GPS by ordinary consumers, more and more Americans are dependent upon space technology. “If all the satellites were to fall out of the sky tomorrow, we would be thrown for a loop,” says Rand. “No advanced weather forecasts, commercial flights … the list continues.”

Much like ecosystems here on Earth, the environment of near-Earth space is feeling the consequences of human intervention. Rand’s research focuses on one of the primary threats: space junk, defined as any human-made piece of hardware in space that no longer serves a useful purpose. Such objects can range from dead satellites to flecks of metal shed as hardware degrades. A historian at heart, Rand’s primary goal is to create a context for the current threat posed to functioning spacecraft by space junk, not only so the issues are more easily comprehended by both the public and those in power, but in hopes of eventually helping craft policy to more sustainably manage the outer space environment.

As for space junk, historical examples abound. “When Sputnik first went up in 1957, a lot of people went outside to get a glimpse,” says Rand, who credits her parents with her fascination with space technology—when she was young they would take her out to watch satellites move through the night sky. “The spectators were looking for a little glowing point of light moving through the sky, but what most of them actually saw was part of the empty rocket that carried it, because it was bigger and shinier. That rocket was the first major piece of space junk.” But not all space junk has such striking origins; something as seemingly insignificant as a flake of paint can become a dangerous projectile in orbit, capable of damaging solar panels on a satellite, or even punching holes through thicker objects like antennae on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Rand, who studied English and astronomy as an undergrad, first came to Penn planning to explore gender in the American space program. But following the 2009 head-on collision between two satellites—a functioning American Iridium satellite and a nonfunctioning Cold War-era Cosmos Russian satellite—she decided there was a unique environmental story that hadn’t been covered in the history of technology literature. In order to acquaint herself with the historical context of environmental challenges in space, Rand studies controversial milestones in the satellite age—for instance, an Air Force project to establish a field of copper fibers in orbit for radio communications—as well as the politics and culture of space technology users throughout the decades, especially during the Cold War. 

The big question is: Who governs an environment as vast, strange, remote, and vulnerable as space? It’s an ever-evolving process that Rand says isn’t dissimilar to periods of frontier expansion in American history. “In the so-called Wild West, it may have seemed like everyone was meant to fend for themselves in a legal vacuum, but it was very much under federal governance. Space is the same in a lot of ways—it may seem like an open frontier, but there’s a set of continually evolving laws that spacefaring nations must follow.”

As part of her ultimate goal to affect policy change, Rand plans to visit both the United Nations and the National Academy of Sciences to better acquaint herself with the history of space policy and treaties. “In order to understand humankind’s place in space, and why astronomers and biologists have come to view it as a threatened ecosystem, we have to study the past,” she says. “It’s a process I’m very invested in.”