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One idea for space waste? Turn it into artificial shooting stars

The European Space Agency and the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde have a novel idea for our off-world garbage dump: Recycle it into atmospheric fireworks.

One idea for space waste? Turn it into artificial shooting stars
[Image: Studio Roosegaarde]

It might seem strange that Daan Roosegaarde, an artist whose work is focused squarely on environmental problems on this planet (from air-purifying smog towers to immersive light shows about sea-level rise) is now focusing on an off-planet cause. Roosegaarde’s latest project, a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), is about the problem of space junk–the tens of thousands of bits of trash currently orbiting Earth. Though it’s miles over our heads, space junk is an extremely and evidently human problem.

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What other species is brilliant enough to figure out how to launch stuff into space–and dumb enough to then trap itself with its own orbital garbage?

[Photo: Studio Roosegaarde]
At least that’s the picture Roosegaarde paints in a radio clip introducing his new Space Waste Lab, a “living lab” his studio is running alongside the ESA over the next few years, seeking ideas, building prototypes, and staging events around space waste.

“The problem with space waste is that more particles create more collisions, create more particles, etc.,” he explains in the clip. “This is called the Kessler effect: That if we continue like this, and most likely we will, we will create this layer of junk, just outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, in such a way that we cannot launch new missiles or satellites anymore because they break down and create even more collisions. So basically, we’re trapped. We found a way to trap ourselves.”

Space Waste Lab, which launched in October with a live waste-tracking performance in the Netherlands, just wrapped up an exhibition in Almere, the Netherlands, and a symposium with experts and students over the weekend. The purpose? Not necessarily to solve space waste–nearly every space program in the world has been hard at work on that one–but to think about the problem in a distinctly Roosegaardian way: with Schoonheid, a Dutch word that connotes “both beauty and cleanliness.”

[Image: Studio Roosegaarde]
In short, space trash isn’t merely something to be collected–it’s something to make good use of–and preferably beautiful use. That might mean preserving some of it for a space museum, or turning it into a huge solar reflector, or somehow harvesting energy from it. But Roosegaarde’s philosophy is most evident in an idea from the symposium called Shooting Stars, which envisions space trash being put into a “controlled re-entry” to the Earth’s atmosphere.

As the accumulated waste burns up in the atmosphere, it creates what the studio calls artificial shooting stars, or fireworks without the pollution, creating a “spectacle and an immersive awareness event” that could be timed to world events. The idea is just an idea–the ESA and the studio are studying space waste and how it could be recycled, not creating a multibillion-dollar prototype space garbage truck.

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Still, if nothing else, we’re living in a time of spectacle. Seeing some of humanity’s garbage burn up on entry is one I wouldn’t want to miss.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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