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

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    Our lives depend
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    on a world we can't see.
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    Think about your week so far.
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    Have you watched TV, used GPS,
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    checked the weather or even ate a meal?
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    These many things
    that enable our daily lives
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    rely either directly or indirectly
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    on satellites.
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    And while we often take for granted
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    the services that satellites provide us,
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    the satellites themselves
    deserve our attention
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    as they are leaving a lasting mark
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    on the space they occupy.
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    People around the world
    rely on satellite infrastructure every day
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    for information, entertainment
    and to communicate.
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    There's agricultural
    and environmental monitoring,
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    Internet connectivity, navigation.
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    Satellites even play a role
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    in the operation of our financial
    and energy markets.
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    But these satellites that we rely on
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    day in and day out
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    have a finite life.
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    They might run out of propellant,
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    they could malfunction,
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    or they may just naturally
    reach the end of their mission life.
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    At this point, these satellites
    effectively become space junk,
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    cluttering the orbital environment.
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    So a framework that enables
    sustainable practices in space
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    is necessary.
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    Such as the disposal of dead satellites,
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    or the cleanup of debris.
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    Otherwise,
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    space will continue to be
    our invisible landfill.
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    People always say to me, "Space is big,
    there's lots of room up there.
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    Why do we need to take action?"
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    And to answer that question,
    I want to paint a picture for you.
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    So imagine you're driving down the highway
    on a beautiful, sunny day
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    out running errands.
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    You've got your music cranked,
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    your windows rolled down,
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    with the cool breeze
    blowing through your hair.
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    Feels nice, right?
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    Everything is going smoothly
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    until suddenly
    your car stutters and stalls
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    right in the middle of the highway.
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    In that instant moment of panic,
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    you scan your front dashboard
    looking for what could be wrong.
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    And then you eye that your fule gauge
    has dropped below empty.
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    You're out of gas.
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    So what do you do?
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    You naturally go to reach
    for your cell phone to call for help.
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    But then you suddenly remember
    that this car you bought
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    could never be fixed if a part breaks,
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    or refilled with gas if the tank runs out.
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    It just wasn't designed that way.
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    So now you have no choice
    but to abandon your car
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    where it is on the highway.
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    Maybe you were lucky enough
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    to be able to move it out of the way
    and into a shoulder lane
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    so that it's out of the way
    of other traffic.
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    A couple of hours ago,
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    your car was a useful machine
    that you relied on in your everyday life.
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    Now, it's a useless hunk of metal
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    taking up space in a valuable
    transportation network.
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    And imagine international roadways
    all cluttered with broken down vehicles
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    that are just getting in the way
    of other traffic.
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    And imagine the debris
    that would be strewn everywhere
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    if a collision actually happened,
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    thousands of smaller pieces of debris
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    becoming new obstacles.
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    This is the paradigm
    of the satellite industry.
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    Satellites that are no longer working
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    are often left to deorbit
    over many, many years,
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    or only moved out of the way
    as a temporary solution.
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    And there are no
    international laws in space
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    to enforce us to clean up after ourselves.
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    Without disposing of dead satellites,
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    or taking action to clean up debris,
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    we are already polluters in outer space.
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    And this is largely in part
    because us, all of us here,
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    rely on the services
    that satellites provide us,
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    without really understanding the impacts
    of our usage.
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    If we want to keep using our phones,
    checking the weather,
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    and so many other
    technological conveniences
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    afforded to us because of satellites,
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    we have to have a clean up plan in place.
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    So the world's first satellite, Sputnik I,
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    was launched in 1957,
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    and in that year, there were
    only a total of three launch attempts.
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    Decades later and dozens of countries
    from all around the world
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    have launched thousands
    of more satellites into orbit,
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    and the frequency of launches
    is only going to increase in the future,
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    especially if you consider
    things like the possibility
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    of 900-plus satellite
    constellations being launched.
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    Now, we send satellites
    to different orbits
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    depending on what they're needed for.
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    One of the most common places
    we send satellites
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    is the low Earth orbit,
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    possibly to image the surface of Earth
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    at up to about 2,000 kilometers altitude.
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    Satellites there are naturally buffeted
    by Earth's atmosphere,
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    so their orbits naturally decay,
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    and they'll eventually burn up,
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    probably within a couple of decades.
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    Another common place we send satellites
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    is the geostationary orbit
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    at about 35,000 kilometers altitude.
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    Satellites there remain in the same place
    above Earth as the Earth rotates,
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    which enables things like communications
    or television broadcast, for example.
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    Satellites in high orbits like these
    could remain there for centuries.
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    And then there's the orbit
    coined "the graveyard,"
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    the ominous junk or disposal orbits,
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    where some satellites
    are intentionally placed
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    at the end of their life
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    so that they're out of the way
    of common operational orbits.
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    Of the nearly 7,000 satellites
    launched since the late 1950s,
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    only about one in seven
    is currently operational,
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    and in addition to the satellites
    that are no longer working,
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    there's also hundreds of thousands
    of marble-sized debris
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    and millions of paint chip-sized debris
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    that are also orbiting around the Earth.
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    Space debris is a major risk
    to space missions,
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    but also to the satellites
    that we rely on each and every day.
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    Now, because space debris and junk
    has become increasingly worrisome,
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    there have been some national
    and international efforts
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    to develop technical standards
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    to help us limit the generation
    of additional debris.
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    So for example, there are recommendations
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    for those low-Earth orbiting spacecraft
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    to be made to deorbit in under 25 years,
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    but that's still a really long time,
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    especially if a satellite
    hasn't been working for years.
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    There's also mandates
    for those dead geostationary spacecraft
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    to be moved into a graveyard orbit.
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    But neither of these guidelines
    is binding under international law,
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    and the understanding is that they will be
    implemented through national mechanisms.
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    These guidelines are also not long-term,
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    they're not proactive,
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    nor do they address
    the debris that's already up there.
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    They're only in place
    to limit the future creation of debris.
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    Space junk is no one's responsibility.
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    So, I grew up with the huge appreciation
    for the outdoors
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    and the keen sense of our footprint
    on the environments we interact with.
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    One of the foremost codes
    of outdoor conduct
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    is the "leave no trace" policy
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    where we show care and respect
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    for our wild [unclear] on Earth,
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    doing our part to protect our resources.
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    Here on Earth, it's a bit easier
    to visualize waste
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    in our natural environments.
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    We can see litter in our streets,
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    in our neighborhoods
    and even in our oceans.
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    The orbital environment is no different -
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    it demands our care,
    it demands our attention
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    and it demands our stewardship.
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    Because space is simply
    a different kind of wilderness
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    that we need to protect.
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    We need a "leave no trace"policy
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    extending all the way
    into the orbital environment and beyond.
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    And fostering a collective
    sense of responsibility
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    can help us reduce our impact.
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    Now, Mount Everest is actually
    an interesting comparison
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    of a new approach to how
    we interact with our environments,
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    as it's often given the dubious honor
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    of being the world's highest garbage dump.
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    Decades after the first conquest
    of the world's highest peak,
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    tons of rubbish left behind by climbers
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    has started to raise concern,
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    and you may have read in the news
    that there's speculation
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    that Nepal will crack down on mountaineers
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    with stricter enforcement
    of penalties and legal obligations.
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    The goal, of course,
    is to persuade climbers
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    to clean up after themselves,
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    so maybe local not-for-profits will pay
    climbers who bring down extra waste,
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    or expeditions might organize
    voluntary cleanup trips.
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    And yet still many climbers feel
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    that independent groups
    should police themselves.
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    There's no simple or easy answer,
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    and even well-intentioned
    efforts at conservation
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    often run into problems.
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    But that doesn't mean
    we shouldn't do everything in our power
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    to protect the environments
    that we rely and depend on,
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    and like Everest, the remote location
    and inadequate infrastructure
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    of the orbital environment
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    make waste disposal a challenging problem.
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    But we simply cannot reach new heights
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    and create an even higher garbage dump,
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    one that's out of this world.
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    The reality of space
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    is that if a component
    on a satellite breaks down,
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    there really are limited
    opportunities for repairs,
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    and only at great cost.
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    But what if we were smarter
    about how we designed satellites?
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    What if all satellites,
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    regardless of what country
    they were built in,
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    had to be standardized in some way
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    for recycling, servicing
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    or active deorbiting?
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    What if there actually were
    international laws with teeth
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    that enforced end-of-life
    disposal of satellites
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    instead of moving them out of the way
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    as a temporary solution?
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    Or maybe satellite manufacturers
    need to be charged a deposit
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    to even launch a satellite into orbit,
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    and that deposit would only be returned
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    if the satellite was disposed of properly
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    or if they cleaned up
    some quota of debris.
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    Or maybe a satellite
    needs to have technology on board
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    to help accelerate deorbit.
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    There are some encouraging signs.
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    The UK's TechDemoSat-1,
    launched in 2014, for example,
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    was designed for end-of-life disposal
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    via a small drag sail.
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    This works for the satellite
    because it's small,
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    but satellites that are higher
    or in larger orbits
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    or are larger altogether,
    like the size of school buses,
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    will require other disposal options.
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    So maybe you get into things
    like high-powered lasers
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    or tugging using nets or tethers,
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    as crazy as those sound in the short term.
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    And then one really cool possibility
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    is the idea of orbital tow trucks
    or space mechanics.
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    Imagine if a robotic arm
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    on some sort of space tow truck
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    could fix the broken components
    on a satellite,
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    making them usable again.
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    Or what if that very same robotic arm
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    could refuel the propellant tank
    on a spacecraft
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    that relies on chemical propulsion
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    just like you or I would refuel
    the fuel tanks on our cars?
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    Robotic repair and maintenance
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    could extend the lives of hundreds
    of satellites orbiting around the Earth.
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    Whatever the disposal
    or cleanup options we come up with,
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    it's clearly not just a technical problem.
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    There's also complex space laws
    and politics that we have to sort out.
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    Simply put, we haven't found a way
    to use space sustainably yet.
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    Exploring, innovating
    to change the way we live and work
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    are what we as humans do,
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    and in space exploration,
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    we're literally moving
    beyond the boundaries of Earth.
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    But as we push thresholds
    in the name of learning and innovation,
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    we must remember that accountability
    for our environments never goes away.
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    There is without doubt congestion
    in the low Earth and geostationary orbits,
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    and we cannot keep
    launching new satellites
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    to replace the ones that have broken down
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    without doing something about them first,
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    just like we would never
    leave a broken down car
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    in the middle of the highway.
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    Earth's orbit is not a limitless resource
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    and the problem will only get worse
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    without a significant change
    to our behaviors.
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    We need a global and collective cimmitment
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    to shared responsibilities
    beyond our planet.
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    So, today I want to leave each
    and every one of you with a challenge.
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    And that's to become a space steward.
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    Next time you use your phone,
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    check the weather or use your GPS,
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    think about the satellite technologies
    that make those activities possible.
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    But also think about the very impact
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    that the satellites have
    on the environment surrounding Earth,
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    and help spread the message
    that together we must reduce our impact.
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    Earth orbit is breathtakingly beautiful
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    and our gateway to exploration.
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    It's up to us to keep it that way.
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    Thank you.
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    (Applause)
Title:
Let's clean up the space junk orbiting Earth | Natalie Panek | TEDxToronto
Description:

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.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
12:55

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