The aerospace sector contributes to an abundance of technical solutions
with profound societal impact. Consequently, considerations of Science,
Technology, and Society (STS), a branch of science studies, are likely to
facilitate the integration processes of technical remedies with society to a
larger extent than earlier.
NASA’s Juno space probe inked a remarkable story in the unwritten pages of history by successfully entering Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, 2016 after almost a 5-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet. With the advent of a new space era which in part thrives on visionary space missions, state-of-the-art advanced space technologies and the private industry’s unprecedented access to space, future space endeavors would benefit from a more all-around approach diverging from a sole platform of technical solutions. The suggested approach is particularly crucial in consideration of numerous ongoing adjustments within the aerospace sector.
As the space industry is moving in the direction of unique exploration opportunities, the field of astronautics will play an augmented role in expanding mankind’s knowledge base about the mysteries of the universe. Capitalizing on pieces of knowledge found in aeronautics, the technology overlap between aeronautics and astronautics, the subject domain of astronautics can further benefit from an increased epistemological perspective which ties astronautics to other disciplines. A branch of philosophy, concerned with the theory of knowledge, epistemology studies the nature of knowledge, the rationally of belief, and justification. However, the proposed argument herein is not to advocate for a solely philosophical approach to astronautics. On the contrary, by questioning the level of acquired knowledge in astronautics, an identification process is suggested to measure the extent of human awareness about the subject matter and to discover additional resources for acquiring new expertise.
In order to dissect the subjects in question into concrete examples applicable to astronautics, the topic of space debris is considered. Space debris encompasses both natural (meteoroid) and artificial (man-made) particles. Mete- oroids are in orbit about the sun, while most artificial debris is in orbit about the Earth. Hereafter, orbital debris will refer to the latter. Orbital debris congestion presents one of the multifaceted subject areas ideal for Science, Technol- ogy, Society (STS) studies. Naturally, the technology domain resonates mostly with the engineering community and scientific aspects of orbital debris congestion also weigh in. Nonetheless, at least the direct connection link between society and technology is not readily apparent as the majority of planet Earth’s citizens have very little, if any contact with orbital debris on a daily basis. Unlike maritime waste which occasionally can wash up on the shores around the world or trash piling up in circumstances where the waste management infrastructures of cities fail, the issue of orbital congestion appears rather distant.
Over the years, orbital debris has transitioned from a direct result of human space exploration to a threat for hu- man lives on board the International Space Station, existing satellite constellations and spacecraft in orbit. In addi- tion, orbital debris, a collection of defunct man-made objects in space including spent rocket stages, spacecraft and generated fragments due to collisions, disintegrations, and erosion, can further impact future space accessibility and the functionality of all space assets in orbit. With more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth and reaching rate of speeds up to 17,500 mph, sufficient to seriously damage a satellite or a spacecraft, the risk of collisions are nearly inevitable. Moreover, there are currently more than half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger and many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they are undetectable but still pose as collision risks.
Glancing at orbital debris congestion under the light of STS paves the way for a series of new opportunities to address current challenges. By the same token, STS can unveil new streams of information which collectively can impact individual domains within the STS subjects. STS considers how cultural, political, and social values affect scientific research and technological innovation and how these in turn affect society, politics, and culture. In the case of orbital debris, it is possible to draw parallels to other cases of waste management and to equally address mitigation efforts for uncontrolled growth of future debris populations. However, expanding horizons beyond the T (technology) in STS also uncovers an unknown territory for understanding new subject matters. In its most simplistic form, the researcher is faced with conducting research in at least three different areas instead of one, and these areas are likely more than three if overlapping domains are considered. Yet, the presented graphical mind map illustrates a number of disconnected pivots when only one of these areas is considered.
Orbital debris congestion is certainly not confined to a single subject matter. Legal aspects, national and inter- national policy regulations, and techno-economic paradigms are a number of topics impacting the overall orbital debris congestion map. Orbital debris removal and other considered remedies to minimize the collision threats and to prevent orbital debris disasters are also shaped by some of the aforementioned topics to a smaller or a greater extent, dependent on the considered scenario. As a first step, recognition of orbital debris as a multifaceted topic would al- low for a more collaborative approach to pursue knowledge from multilateral and multidisciplinary vantage points.
NASA’s latest endeavor to characterize the uncertainties associated with solar activity projection, orbit propaga- tion, and breakup models as part of its long-term orbital debris prediction assessment is therefore commendable. Presented during the U.S.-China Expert Workshop on Orbital Debris Mitigation and Satellite Collision Avoidance in Washington DC, on 27 June 2016, consideration of these topics assists the knowledge generation processes in STS. NASA’s two parametric studies for quantifying the potential negative environmental impacts of CubeSats and mega-constellations in low Earth orbit equally contribute to more comprehensive pieces of information, if the studies are linked with legislative and policy areas as an extended approach to include societal impact.
Orbital debris elucidated in the context of STS is one representative subject in astronautics mentioned for exem- plification purposes. Following the same train of thought, a wider STS integration of subjects in astronautics is of remarkable value to society as a whole and conclusively encouraged.
Amir S. Gohardani and Omid Gohardani
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of any entities or organizations with which he is affiliated.
Astronautics in Light of Science,
Technology and Society