Davos organisers offer us something else to worry about: outer space

Junkyard of Earth orbit set to worsen further – 70,000 launches to come in decades ahead

Orbital concerns fail to make top 10 risks confronting world over the next decade. File photograph: Getty

As if things haven’t been bad enough on Earth in the last two years, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest annual rundown of risks facing the globe, published this week, provided readers with something else to worry about: the veritable wild west that space is becoming.

Humans, of course, have been exploring space for decades. But while early activity was carried out and funded by governments, the last decade has been marked by growing private investment in the new frontier.

“Increased exploitation of these orbits carries the risk of congestion, an increase in debris and the possibility of collisions in a realm with few governance structures to mitigate new threats,” said the WEF in the 17th edition of its Global Risks Report. (The tome is usually unveiled before the WEF hosts its annual Davos jamboree in January, but this has deferred for the second year running due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

Falling costs for launch technology has led to a new space race between companies and the public sector, while some governments are also “encouraging private space activity to further national ‘territorial’ claims”, noted the report.

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Last year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's space tourism venture Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson took off, while Elon Musk's Space X business made big gains in launching astronauts and satellites.

Meanwhile, a host of countries, including China, Russia and the US, are adding to their space programmes as they chase geopolitical and military power or scientific and commercial gains.

“With limited and outdated global governance in place to regulate space alongside diverging national-level policies, risks are intensifying,” stated the report.

The growing number of parties now operating in space – with a record number of launches last year – threaten to exacerbate old frictions on earth, or create new ones, if not properly managed, it warned.

Hundreds of years

Approximately 11,000 satellites have been launched since Sputnik 1 in 1957, it said, resulting in a junkyard of an estimate one million of pieces of debris larger than 1cm in size floating in orbit. Moreover, 70,000 additional launches are in the pipeline over the coming decades if current plans materialise.

“Once in orbit, and unless actively decommissioned, many of these satellites could remain in space for hundreds of years,” it said, adding that the increasing launches add to the risks of collisions – and aggravating international tensions.

For now, the 1,000 experts, policymakers and industry leaders surveyed for the latest WEF report have left orbital concerns out of the top 10 risks facing the world over the next decade, to focus on more pressing matters like climate change and the erosion of social cohesion and spike in government debt as result of the Covid-19 crisis. But for how long?