Afterlives of Orbital Infrastructure

Rajji Desai

This essay is an excerpt of New Geographies 11: Extraterrestrial by Jeffrey S. Nesbit and Guy Trangoš.

 “We live in an age in which extremely expensive machines are made and installed in orbit without public knowledge, only to be spectacularly blown away and become total losses before our eyes.”

Lisa Parks, “Orbital Ruins” (2013)

As of 2019, the global space industry generates approximately 350 billion U.S. dollars in revenue and is estimated to become a 1.1 trillion-dollar industry by the year 2040, with over 500 satellites being launched into Earth’s orbit every year.[1] Until recently, national governments had a de facto monopoly on orbital space, using it to exercise military prowess and exert hegemonic dominance in the international political sphere. While such ways of looking at orbital space continue to be dominant within public consciousness, this way of understanding orbital space and its primary actors has become outmoded. More recently, extraterrestrial activities have taken on new, more commodified dimensions, with this decade’s leading projects being spearheaded by corporate actors from the private sector.

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The author would like to express sincere gratitude to her academic advisor Neil Brenner, Professor of Urban Theory at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design for his nuanced criticism and patient guidance all through the research process.

[1] “Space: Investing in the Final Frontier,” Morgan Stanley, accessed August 9, 2019, https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/investing-in-space.

[2] “The Old Space Program and the New Space Movement | Library of Flight,” accessed August 9, 2019, https://doi.org/10.2514/5.9871624103223.0099.0106.

[3] The Society Pages, “Outer Space and Earthly Inequalities – There’s Research on That,” accessed August 9, 2019, https://thesocietypages.org/trot/2017/03/24/outer-space-and-earthly-inequalities/.

[4] “What Are Satellites Used For?” Union of Concerned Scientists, accessed August 9, 2019, https://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/space-weapons/what-are-satellites-used-for.

[5] “Necsus | Orbital Ruins,” accessed August 9, 2019, https://necsus-ejms.org/orbital-ruins/.

[6] Fraser MacDonald, “Anti-Astropolitik — Outer Space and the Orbit of Geography,” Progress in Human Geography 31, no. 5 (October 1, 2007): 592–615, https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132507081492.

[7] Gary Kafer, “Documenting the Invisible: Political Agency in Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography,” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture 5, no. 1 (n.d.): 53–71.

[8] “How Long Should a Satellite Last: Five Years, Ten Years, 15, 30?” SpaceNews.com, May 24, 2018, https://spacenews.com/how-long-should-a-satellite-last/.

[9] “Graveyard Orbits and the Satellite Afterlife | NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS),” accessed August 9, 2019, https://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/content/graveyard-orbits-and-satellite-afterlife.

[10] Paglen, Trevor, Rebecca. Solnit, and Aperture Foundation. Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes. 1st ed. New York: London: Aperture; Thames & Hudson [distributor], 2010: 8

[11] “Nasa Has a ‘spacecraft Cemetery’ Where It Buries Used Satellites,” Mail Online, October 23, 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/~/article-5007681/index.html.

[12] “This Is Where the International Space Station Will Go to Die,” accessed August 9, 2019, https://www.popsci.com/this-is-where-international-space-station-will-go-to-die/.

[13] “Mir Re-Entry - Updated Analysis,” accessed August 9, 2019,   http://www.zarya.info/Tracking/Mir/Mir-Re-entry2.php.

[14] Kiona Smith-Strickland, “This Watery Graveyard Is the Resting Place for 161 Sunken Spaceships,” Gizmodo accessed August 9, 2019, https://gizmodo.com/this-watery-graveyard-holds-161-sunken-spaceships-1703212211.

[15] “From Outer Space to Ocean Depths: The ‘Spacecraft Cemetery’ and the Protection of the Marine Environment in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction by Vito De Lucia, Viviana Iavicoli: SSRN,” accessed August 9, 2019, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3153458.

[16] Lisa Rand, “Orbital Decay: Space Junk and the Environmental History of Earth’s Planetary Borderlands,” Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations, January 1, 2016,18 https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/1963.

[17] “Necsus | Orbital Ruins,” accessed August 9, 2019, https://necsus-ejms.org/orbital-ruins/.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Steve Pyne, “Extreme Environments,” Environmental History 15, no. 3 (2010): 509–13.

[20] Ibid.