The universe around us is an essential aspect of civilization. In modern-day society, cosmic infrastructures, such as space stations and satellites, occupy above the Earth's surface, allowing navigation and communication technology to embed our daily lives below. Even in the subsequent future, when global warming or large-scale natural disasters create mass extinction scenarios, humanity can travel through the universe to more preferable habitats and avoid the dangerous consequences entirely. Losing access to this universal space around and beyond our planet can be devastating for the human race. Ironically, with every rocket launched or satellite stationed into orbit, space travel progresses towards implausibility. We are transforming the Earth into an inescapable cosmic prison guarded by our space junk. Humanity could become the unfortunate inmates imprisoned on our dying planet.
Like most things in the universe, gravity plays a crucial factor in forming a cosmic trap. The balance between an object's velocity and the gravitational pull of another body in space creates an orbit. Masses traveling along this elliptical path tend to stay in trajectory for centuries. Because of this, scientists station cosmic infrastructures throughout low Earth orbit (LEO), an area above Earth's surface in which orbit occurs, without the risk of them plunging into the atmosphere. However, space travel's unsustainable engineering is flawed upon entering this region.
To get rid of the unnecessary load, rockets, for example, detach from their empty fuel tanks once safely above Earth. The separated spacecraft exits its orbital path and leaves behind its dead-weight counterparts. Although some tanks crash back down to Earth or burn up in the mesosphere, much of the components remain within LEO.
Carolin Frueh, an astronomical researcher at Purdue University, goes against the use of modern spacecrafts, stating, "if we go on like this, we will reach a point of no return." The result of decades of space travel is hundreds of millions of space debris, from destroyed satellites to metal shards, traveling around the Earth.
Loose orbitals are an extensive byproduct of space travel, but just how threatening are they? According to NASA, space junk travels nearly 18,000 miles per hour above the Earth. Even pea-sized orbitals moving at these rates could penetrate satellites, dismantle rockets, and completely shatter other detached equipment. LEO contains debris that circles our planet at dangerous and uncontrollable speeds. The chances for collision are more likely than ever. Donald J. Kessler, a NASA astrophysicist, described how space activities and the use of satellites might become an aspiration in the future because of space debris collisions. Attempts to minimize the overall space junk composition around Earth are in use today, in the form of self-landing fuel capsules to satellite-use taxation, but imprisonment may still transpire.
Just one piece of orbiting shrapnel can severely damage our most sustainable space infrastructure. Compiled with the millions of others present above Earth, safely crossing LEO could be impossible in the coming decades. A cosmic prison entrapping humankind may be unavoidable no matter how far technology progresses.