Our Cosmic Cleanup Problem—And Its IU-Led Solution

An illustration of planet Earth seen from space, surrounded by the innumerable satellites in its orbit.
Photo: Christos Melas/Adobe Stock

Here’s an unnerving thought: Floating miles above your head at this very moment are more than 34,000 pieces of space debris. That’s more than the undergraduate population at IU Bloomington—and only accounts for space junk large enough to track. It’s estimated that there are an additional 128 million smaller fragments hurtling around the Earth.

Don’t let the fragments’ small size fool you—the debris is a big problem. Just this past spring, a piece of debris too small to detect collided with the International Space Station, puncturing its robotic arm.

But there’s help on the way: IU is devising a solution to clean up this hazardous space mess.

Scott Shackelford, associate professor of business law and ethics in IU’s Kelley School of Business and executive director of IU’s Ostrom Workshop, is co-leading a project called “Astro-environmentalism: The polycentric governance of the Earth’s orbital space.” It uses Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work on the governance of common resources to establish a debris policy that all space-faring parties can agree upon.

With so many stakeholders in modern space exploration, the first step is taking inventory of all owners and operators of equipment in Earth’s orbit.

“It used to be pretty simple: The U.S. and the Soviet Union were the major players, so when they agreed on a topic like the return of astronauts, treaties happened quickly,” Shackelford said. “But now, there are dozens of countries with space capabilities, as well as companies, all with different interests and capabilities. From there, we’ll move on to solutions and policy implications.”

Thanks to IU’s research, we’ll have clearer (and cleaner) skies ahead.

This article was originally published in the 2021 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
A. Price
A resident of the Hoosier state since grade school, Alex forged a friendship with “tried and true” IU upon becoming a writer at the IU Foundation.