I first wrote this article when they found Beagle2, the Mars probe that crashed. There it was, the main probe largely intact, and a load of debris spread across the Martian landscape like the residue of family picnic after a nice day in the sun.
Of course, not all families leave the rubbish behind, but it does happen a lot, and it’s deliberate. It comes from a lack of respect for the environment, or just plain laziness, but mostly a combination of them both. I mean, is there any possible scenario where this is not a crime against nature and a lack of respect for those others who wish to visit the same spot? But such is the arrogance of man.
I guess that’s where that particular analogy runs out in this case. It’s incredibly hard to get this technology to the other celestial bodies in our solar system and the expense of cleaning them up is unfathomable. I mean what are a few bits of scrap metal spread across an otherwise empty planet? Nothing really, it’s not like anyone is going to see. In some ways I reconcile myself with the hope that these remarkable pieces of technology may in some way become vital to saving the lives of the first humans to visit, in some ‘Red Planet’ type scenario where the mission has fallen to pieces. It’s not like they could nip to the shop to get supplies, so you never know. Of course, Amazon might deliver to Mars by then.
But joking aside, I think there is a very important principle here. Just because no one can see it, it does not mean it is not there. I mean we have been leaving bits of old equipment on the moon since the 1960’s, we have recently not so delicately left a probe on a comet passing through our locality. I mean ten years of travel to leave a lump of useless metal on an object as old as time itself. I mean really, is that right?
Again though, I am not entirely serious at the moment. I love space, I love the concept of space exploration, nothing excites me more, and one day as man expands his knowledge and technical ability, we will reclaim a lot of these early relics and revere them for the essential stepping stones in our conquest of the galaxy that they were. Beagle 2 will sit in pride of place in the first National Museum of Mars when we have successfully colonised the planet and probably found infinitely more efficient ways to abuse and pollute the landscape.
Those probes that we have sent towards outer space will drift for thousands of years to hopefully prove that life exists elsewhere in the galaxy to other species with the same questions about life as our own. If the Voyager probes were found, they would not be seen as floating junk with no value more than the gold used to create the discs aboard. No, they would be seen as proof of the existence of life elsewhere, the very thing so many crave here. They are messengers of humanity.
Of course, no one knows the effect that this information would have on that alien society. It might create hope, or a need to reach out and add us to some enlightened universal community. Maybe we could be plain out of luck and find them driven by some Trump like ignorance that would lead them to build giant spaceships and come hurtling across the light years to launch a pre-emptive strike against a perceived threat to their way of life. We know the risks, but we accept the gamble.
So I have managed to reassure myself a little here, not about the impending destruction of humanity by a paranoid alien race, but as to the effects of our space junk on the rest of the cosmos.
That doesn’t stop me looking closer to home though. I am talking about those items in orbit around our own planet. The pieces of debris we have left in our very own corner of space number in the millions. They create a threat to the working satellites and to those of us below, who like Chicken Little may be exposed to the sky falling on our heads at any point in time. Sure, most of it is small, and burns up quickly on re-entry, but that again is not the point.
We are currently testing technology that can collect debris, sweep it up a piece at a time. But as you probably realise, there are tens of thousands of lumps of debris hurtling around in near orbit, so it seems a case of too little, too late. Those multi-million pound, nay billion-pound satellites we have been sending up for the last few decades are in constant danger of being stabbed through the heart by the smallest of waste items. The Space station that represents some of the finest work of mankind is living on borrowed time before the hull gets punctured and the brave residents have to mobilise into some movie-worth recovery action to save their own lives. We always do this to ourselves, we drive forward with profit as our only driver and risk everything we hold dear along the way.
This behaviour is truly ignorant, and now I am turning my attention to planet Earth, out beautiful unique home. When are we going to accept that there is a social responsibility for us as a species to clean up our messes as we go and not leave these as ever-expanding problems for the generations that follow? Time after time history shows us that our self-serving approach is both short sighted and potentially far costlier in the long run. Yet we allow society to be driven by the false belief that it is ‘only business’, the biggest lie of man. It is never only business, only a moron would be believing that. It is just not acceptable to judge today’s successes on the profit margins they make, but to consider our children’s needs as well, and all the generations to come, otherwise there won’t be any future generations. How’s that for business?
So what I say is please let’s think about how we are going to treat the rest of the universe. Surely we have made enough mistakes at home to have a good idea what we need to plan for. Let’s use the expansion of the race to other celestial bodies as the opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities, to consider other ways we can value ourselves, not with money, but by what we do, how well we do it and what legacy we leave for the generations to follow.