Orbital Debris: Design and its Extra-terrestrial Aftermath

Design Beyond the Human: Transdisciplinary Conversations about the Planet, eds. Elio Caccavale and Gordon Hush, Routledge, 2023.




When the sociologist Roland Barthes encountered the new Citroën D.S. at the 1955 Paris Auto Show, he considered it obvious that this ‘superlative object’ had ‘fallen from the sky’ (Barthes 1991, 88). The post-war auto industry and the Western imagination of modernity was fuelled by the achievements and accoutrements of space travel. Whether in Poissy or Detroit, designers channelled Space Age aesthetics for their cars that the artist Richard Hamilton, described as being ‘fabulously wrought like rocket[s] and space probe[s]’ (Hamilton 1963, 53). 

Outer space, whether seen as a conceptual tabula rasa from which cosmological forms were summoned for application to earthly functions, or as a mysterious metaphoric ‘world above that of nature’ from which vehicles fell, fully manufactured, into cultural discourse, has long provided design with its ultimate reference point and horizon for cognitive as well as actual colonization.

In the sixty years since the publishing of Barthes’ now-famous essay, however, space, as a context for design, has been transformed. What was once an infinite expanse of pre-design possibilities is now an increasingly finite dumping zone for pieces of post-design waste. Trillions of pieces, in fact.


… up close, and after decades in orbit, [rocket] surfaces are less like ‘cake icing’ and more like steam punk artichokes—with dandruff. 


From the perspective of French sociologists, science fiction production designers and televised launch viewers, rockets may seem to be made of ‘unbroken metal’ just as cars were considered to be ‘juxtaposed and [held] together by sole virtue of their wondrous shape’ (Barthes 1991, 88). But, up close, and after decades in orbit, their surfaces are less like ‘cake icing’ and more like steam punk artichokes—with dandruff. 

In sixty years since the successful launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, almost 15,000 objects (satellites, probes, landers, crewed spacecrafts, and space station flight elements) have been propelled into space. About 9,000 of those, in various states of repair, are still operational and orbiting earth. The rest have been abraded into what was recently estimated to be 100 trillion pieces of space debris whirling around in the Low Earth Orbit region (the area of space below an altitude of 2,000 km) (Sample 2023). There are some stray nuts and bolts—errant spatulas, even—but most, like the chips of Mylar and flakes of plastic are small in size individually. The fact that they circle the planet at 17,500 miles per hour and that their population is increasing so rapidly, however, means they frequently collide with one another and create yet more fragments. This phenomenon of ‘ablation cascade’ was predicted in 1978 by NASA scientist Donald Kessler (Stewart 2016, 108). Kessler, who later became chair of the Orbital Debris Programs Office, has observed that ‘any attempt to achieve a growth-free small debris environment by eliminating sources of past debris will likely fail because fragments from future collisions will be generated faster than atmospheric drag will remove them’ (Kessler 2019).

Attempting to dodge the proliferation of ‘space junk’, as it has become known, is expensive and dangerous. The pieces of debris larger than 1 centimetre can cause spacecraft to completely break-up and, with each collision, create hundreds to thousands of new debris objects. Even the very small fragments of less than 1 centimetre are considered to be able to render spacecraft inoperable or destroy sensitive components, causing damage to navigation, communication and weather forecasting systems. NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris Nicholas Johnson believes that what poses the greatest risk to space missions is the very smallest and least trackable bits of debris, due largely to the uncertainty of when and where they may strike from. Apart from the inconvenience caused to the communications, defence and other emergent space industries that comprise what NASA calls the LEO Economy, the potential for significant scientific study is also being hampered. The International Space Station (ISS), for example, is vulnerable to damage and on three occasions in 2022 alone had to engage in what are termed Debris Avoidance Manoeuvres (DAMs). October 2014 saw one of the closest shaves at ISS, when six astronauts only just survived a junk collision by sacrificing an automated transfer vehicle to take the impact (Boucher 2014). 

Meanwhile, the trend towards mega-constellations of small satellites continues without being checked. The broadband satellite internet services company OneWeb has a constellation of 648 and Elon Musk’s spacecraft manufacturer, launcher, and satellite communications company SpaceX has launched more than 3,000 Starlink satellites and is planning on launching a further 9,000 by 2026.  The latest report from the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee posits that the amount of space junk in orbit will double within twenty-five years and, because of the exponentially increasing collisions, could increase a further fifty times by 2100.


The fallout of Capitalist industrial processes, behaviours, and ideals, has wreaked irreparable damage on our planet’s lifeforms and habitats.


The fallout of Capitalist industrial processes, behaviours, and ideals, has wreaked irreparable damage on our planet’s lifeforms and habitats. In order to practice, teach, learn and research the skills and capacities needed to repair our connection with other beings and entities—let alone to shape liveable futures—we need to attend to alternative understandings of time beyond the Capitalocenic, linear, progressive, and globally synchronized, and toward the cyclical, plural, and cosmological. 

Relevant in this respect is the geological concept of deep time, first described by the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton, who saw that the cycles of sedimentation and erosion which had given the planet its stratified topography, must have required a timescale that not only exploded the Biblical creation narrative, but was of a magnitude so vast that in it, ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ (Hutton 1788, 223). The KABK Deep Futures Research Group (2017-) is based on the premise that this immensity of timescale can be a departure point exploring the ways in which art and design research might contribute to a more nuanced understanding of climate catastrophe, planetary degradation and the loss of biodiversity. The group’s collectively generated research is shared via publications, exhibitions and an annual conference (Fault Lines), and includes: glossaries of key terms, open-source repositories of references, recipes and resources, essay making (text, audio, visual and video). Above all, it seeks to develop and experiment with new methods for practice-based research and for embedding it in art and design education—for compositing climate justice imaginaries needed to navigate our post-Capitalocenic, post-human futures. Just as there is a temporal continuum between the deep time of our planet’s geological past and the deep future of the consequences of our design products, processes and values, we also need to conceive spatially of how, and how far, those consequences extend. As a reviewer of Dr Space Junk Vs The Universe: Archaeology and the Future notes, ‘an entanglement of pastness and futurity is intrinsic to outer space for while the night sky presents us visually with intermingling pasts, the idea of preservation entails a future into which these pasts are cast’ (Gorman 2022, 422). 


And even as this image of wholeness, integration, and relationality was forming [stimulated by the publication of Earthrise in 1969,] the magnitude of its distribution meant that it was simultaneously shattering…


In 1948 English astronomer Fred Hoyle speculated that ‘once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose’ (Yoder 2022). And, indeed, when the Earthrise image taken from the spacecraft Apollo 8 was published in 1969, its power as an idea and icon was co-opted both by an emergent environmental movement and by corporate interests. Its ability to instantly convey the integrated beauty of the planet’s natural ecosystem, but also its fragility, helped galvanize a demand for pro-environmental legislation and the inception of the first Earth Day in 1970. It also led to new conceptions of planetary management and imperial control and has become increasingly reinscribed as what Neil Turnbull has referred to as ‘a representation of corporate global prowess’ (2006, 133). 

The ‘overview effect’, as space philosopher Frank White dubbed it, was the cognitive shift brought about by perceiving earth from space in which it was possible to have an intense emotional reaction and increased sense of connection to other people and the earth as a whole. Even though only a handful of humans experienced this effect directly, the ‘stream of transmitted pictures’ of earth and the proliferation of new terminology to convey the sense of being global in the 1970s, meant that a simulation of this total overview of the planet took shape in the public imaginary. And even as this image of wholeness, integration, and relationality was forming, the magnitude of its distribution meant that it was simultaneously shattering, as the philosopher Susan Buck-Morss has described, into signals of a new, fragmented global era where exploded structures of history are ‘scattering fragments of the past forward into unanticipated locations’, creating combinations and juxtapositions that offer ‘new readings of the past as a way of charting a different future’ (Morss 2015). 

We cannot photograph the space junk phenomenon in its entirety but, because around 40,000 pieces of debris are catalogued and tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network and maintained in their catalogue, there are plenty of real-time interactive maps through which orbits of particular pieces can be tracked and renderings through which its distribution is plotted. Some of the illustrations in circulation are quite old (one of the most frequently used, dates from 2005) and exhibit various peculiarities of representation. The images based on NASA data, for example, are generated from what the image captions describe as ‘a distant oblique vantage point’ and, in order to optimize their visibility, the plotted dots are scaled not according to the size of the earth but rather to the image dimensions. 

What the various renderings have in common is their depiction of a planet doubly imprisoned by its own trash—‘scattered fragments of its past’—first by a densely packed low-orbit perimeter cloud which in turn is encircled by a looser ring of the higher-orbit pieces. This variant of post-photographic digital self-portrait—albeit more of an avatar or a selfie with all the filters—is enabled by the very orbiting imaging devices that, as they deteriorate, will become part of the captured image itself. It is ‘operational’ in the sense of filmmaker Harun Farocki’s definition—an image that can track, navigate, activate, oversee, control, visualise, detect and identify (Hoel 2018, 12). There is something rather depressing about how easily it has usurped the place of those instantly-visually-graspable-and-yet-resonant-and-profound analogue images taken by the Apollo 8 and Apollo 17 crew, respectively.

But could it also be that this new species of constantly updating, networked, publicly available, plotting-as-imaging is just as powerful, in its way, and ‘operational’ not just in the technological sense of the term but also in the way it can ‘activate’ emotional response in humans? The scientist Dr. Alice Gorman has observed that space junk, far from being useless, as the label implies, has an important social function where its ‘value comes from shaping people’s ideas of what space is and how they are connected to it’ (2019).

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has convincingly argued that our era’s ‘failure in the face of climate emergency’ is a ‘failure of the imagination’ (2016, 9). Ghosh examines our inability—at the level of history, politics, and literature—to comprehend the extreme scale and violence of climate events. The pollution of space, while imperceptible to the human eye, is extremely legible and even spectacular to the human imagination. Might the vivid composite of renderings and impressions of our planet, with its ultimate escape route being closed off by a dense cloud of colliding, exploding and self-replicating debris, provide us with the impetus we seem to need to attend to other the invisible and insidious stranglehold on our atmosphere—that of carbon-dioxide? 

This chapter explores some of the approaches to the mitigation of space junk. It considers how research at the intersection of art and design practices, history, media archaeology, speculative fiction, and the environmental humanities might contribute a needed critique of the non-sustainable, techno-determinist modes of intervention currently being deployed, bring about deeper understanding, and offer alternative imaginaries, of the extra-terrestrial aftermath of design, in the context of the earth-orbital environmental crises. 


Among the thousands of patents that have been filed since the early 1990s which purport to solve the problem of space debris removal, recurring tropes emerge: snagging nets and tentacles; shooting lasers and harpoons; sweeping robots; and dragging tethers, parachutes or solar sails.


Inquiring minds at dozens of academic research institutes around the world have been ignited by the challenge of space debris, and supported in their endeavours by private venture capital that perceives a viable business opportunity in the Spacetech niche, as well as by government and regional funding bodies. Some run simulation experiments to calculate the impact of debris on spacecraft materials and components, while others measure the density of pieces of debris in low earth orbit, so that the extent of damage of impending collisions can be predicted with accuracy. While elsewhere, the emphasis is focus is on education and public awareness.

Remediation through removal, however, gets the most attention. Among the thousands of patents that have been filed since the early 1990s which purport to solve the problem of space debris removal, recurring tropes emerge: snagging nets and tentacles; shooting lasers and harpoons; sweeping robots; and dragging tethers, parachutes or solar sails. Most of the innovation makes use of space’s natural incinerating zone; the gadgets are meant to nudge, tow, sling-shot or otherwise propel the waste toward earth’s lowest orbit where it will burn up on re-entry. A piece of junk dragged below about 500 km altitude means it will burn up within twenty-five years; if left above that, it would take centuries. However, these figures will have to be adjusted as we continue to emit too much carbon dioxide, and the temperature of the earth’s troposphere decreases, making it less dense, which hinders the debris from falling to the threshold of earth’s atmosphere. 

Among the technologies actually being tested during increasing numbers of missions dedicated to this purpose are: the European Space Agency Space Debris Office’s e.DeOrbit mission to retrieve the derelict satellite Envisat with a double whammy of nets and tentacle-like cables. The mission was taken over by Switzerland’s ClearSpace 1 program, who wanted to demonstrate their Active Debris Removal technology, which their CEO characterised as a ‘tow truck’ (Piguet 2019). In 2022 the Japanese company Astroscale tested its End-of-Life Services and successfully demonstrated ‘tracking of an object from a great distance and rendezvous with an uncontrolled object’ as part of its ELSA-d mission. A tiny three-unit CubeSat called OSCaR (Obsolete Spacecraft Capture and Removal), designed to clean up debris with its onboard nets and tethers, and developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York is scheduled for a five-year mission, after which it is programmed to self-destroy along with the junk it captured. The research team says they ‘envision a day where we could send up an entire flock, or squadron, of OSCaRs to work jointly going after large collections of debris’ (Anderson 2019). 

As these proposed technological solutions proliferate, there is an emerging danger that these autonomous gadgets, if not regulated, will themselves become part of the problem they are trying to solve.

Another type of approach focuses less on the attempt to remove individual pieces of debris and more on tracking, surveillance, and measuring as a way to safeguard operational craft. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, in cooperation with the US Space Force, uses a network of ground-based radar systems to track and catalogue space debris in real-time, creating what they refer to as a ‘space fence’. In military aviation to ‘fence in’ means you are ready for battle and are entering enemy air space; your weapons are armed, avionics are in combat mode. This kind of linguistic slippage is typical of the ongoing normalization in political and popular discourse of the enclosure and militarization of orbital and outer space. 


Whether conceived of through the lens of Object-Oriented Ontology or political science, the more-than-global scale of the issue [of space debris] creates the need for international cooperation and international legal regulation.


Space debris constitutes a ‘hyperobject’, in the sense that philosopher and ecological theorist Timothy Morton uses the term, as a phenomenon (such as global warming or poverty or plastic waste) so confused and massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity. Hyperobjects according to Morton are: ‘viscous’ in that they stick to the things to which they relate; not easy to define and tend to flood discourses; generally, not visible (even if we see something, it is only a part of the hyperobject); and their temporalities exceed the human sense of time (2013, 27-37).

Space debris is also a species of ‘super wicked problem’. It is characterised by ‘incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize’ (which renders it ‘wicked’) and it is additionally burdened by the four criteria of ‘super’-resistant problems: the fact there is a time deadline on finding the solution; no central authority is dedicated to finding a solution; those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; and the ways in which certain policies irrationally impede future progress (Levin et al. 2012, 123-152).

Whether conceived of through the lens of Object-Oriented Ontology or political science, the more-than-global scale of the issue creates the need for international cooperation and international legal regulation. As the race to the moon was gathering momentum in the late 1960s, the United Nations (UN) established a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) to review, among other things, legal problems arising from space-related conduct.  It went on to develop five international treaties and five sets of principles governing outer space. Of these, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is still relevant today, and considered by space lawyers as akin to a constitution. Article IX in the OST requires states to conduct their outer space activities ‘with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties’. But space debris is not explicitly mentioned in any space law treaty.

In 2002 the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) was founded to address this omission. The Committee organizes conferences and issues documents such as its ‘Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines’, which were updated in 2021. While its recommendations for mitigation measures have found broad consensus, and thirteen national agencies are members, there is no mechanism to enforce compliance. The Committee still considers there is still much to be done to raise the awareness of space farers, decision takers and the interested public and to develop a common understanding and route towards a sustainable space environment. 

It is hard to imagine a binding space debris treaty being agreed upon in today’s political climate since, as Christopher Newman, a Professor of Space Law and Policy at Northumbria University observes, ‘the very nations who need to compromise are geopolitical adversaries’ (The Guardian 2023). For example, on 15 November, 2021, while on earth Russia was engaged in full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it launched a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) test to destroy one of its own defunct satellites. The explosion created a huge amount of new space debris and drew condemnation from the international community, underlining how closely linked are the environmental geopolitics of earth and outer space (Amos 2021).

One of the most ‘super-wicked’ and ‘hyper’ aspects of the challenge of regulating international agreement is that all of our space agencies are inextricably tied to national governments and militaries. As the chief executive of the Future Today Institute has noted, enforcing space debris prevention guidelines would involve each country divulging exactly what it was launching and when, and this scenario remains ‘unlikely’ (Webb 2018). The private sector is potentially in a better position to collaborate to build grand-scale orbital cleaning mechanisms, but their commercial interests are driven by immediate launches, and often by their entanglement with national governments.

But it seems the real impediment may be less about diplomacy and more about epistemology. In a 2016 interview, former NASA scientist Kessler explained that one of the main impediments to achieving meaningful solutions is located in the lack of a legal, internationally agreed definition of space debris (Stewart 2016, 103). NASA describes it as ‘all man-made objects in orbit about the Earth which no longer serve a useful purpose’. The ESA’s definition sounds similar but differs on points of detail: ‘all non-functional, artificial objects, including fragments and elements thereof, in Earth orbit or re-entering into Earth’s atmosphere’. While individual governments, agencies, and corporations are doing the defining, those seeking justification for their non-compliance with the guidelines will always find a loophole or an interpretation to work with. As space becomes increasingly valuable as a resource-commodity-territory-lab, so it will raise more and more complex philosophical and ethical questions about the nature of ownership, nation statehood, governance and the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. 


‘the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization’.
Philip K. Dick, 1968


In all our utopian and dystopian imaginaries, waste is a factor, sometimes conspicuous by its sterile absence but usually by its excessive presence. English Professor Brian Thill notes how waste, trash, the dirty, and unclean assert themselves in science fiction as ‘signs of the stubborn resistance to total order that advanced societies are supposed to be shepherding us toward’ (2015, 48). Space debris, in particular, plays a vital role in both the world-building and world-undoing of science fiction plotting. In many instances, such as the 1970s TV sitcom Quark, 1990s hard sci-fi anime Planetes, and the 2021 Korean movie Space Sweepers, the action revolves around multispecies gangs collecting garbage in deep space. Others, such as the 1950s pulp novel Deadly Litter, or episode eight of the first season of Futurama depict the ‘Armageddon’ moment when earth is threatened by an approaching giant ball of garbage of its own making. The 2013 movie Gravity focuses on the threat to individual humans in space who are separated from their craft by a massive cloud of debris. Even documentaries such as Collision Point: The Race to Clean up Space and Space Junk 3D lean on science fiction tropes to activate the viewers’ imaginative engagement with the topic.

An early instance of a literary imaginary that bridges the earth-orbit divide is the menacing and entropic agency of ‘kipple’ in the Philip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, published in 1968 and the 1982 Bladerunner movie it inspired. Kipple in Dick’s post-apocalyptic dystopia is ‘useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape’ (Dick 1968, 30). At night and when you leave your home, the kipple reproduces itself. J.R. explains to Pris, whose own home has been overrun, how ‘the First Law of Kipple’ is that it drives out nonkipple. ‘We can roll the kipple-factor back’, he says, but ultimately: 

No one can win against kipple […] except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization. (1968, 30-31).

An example of the kind of contribution that can be made by visual arts research is Project Adrift, a series of films and installations by artists Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan. Practice-based research inquiries in art and design have the potential to introduce nuance to the dominant geo-political narrative, to counter the techno-solutionist approach with critical ambivalence, and to contribute an alternative and more-than-visual means of engagement with the space debris hyperobject. 

Motivated by the enigmatic qualities of orbital debris and the emotions it can evoke, such as awe, fear, loneliness, and even love, their work takes account of the senses in seeking to render space junk ‘personal, visible, audible’. Five of the artworks from the project were assembled for the exhibition ‘Cosmos Archaeology—Explorations in Time and Space’, held in late 2022 in the EPFL Pavilions in Lausanne. Among them was Debris-o-Gram, where the positions of 52,829 pieces of debris were visualized as part of a live holographic projection of earth. There is something disturbing and moving about the scale of this installation. Positioned on a plinth at eye level, and as small as a tennis ball, this little earth is the same size as the Earthrise and Blue Marble images, and even as its holographic dimensionality invites our caress it denies it. 

The best-known part of the project is Adrift, a film that combines footage from space missions, interviews with astronomers and the astronaut and meteorologist Piers Sellers (the one who during the 2006 Mission STS-121 says, ‘Guys… I gotta tell you… I think my spatula’s escaped’), and is narrated from the perspective of Vanguard, the oldest piece of space junk being tracked in orbit.  In the most participatory aspect of the project, individual pieces of debris can be ‘adopted’ via Twitter (@VanguardAdrift, @FengyunAdrift and @SuitSatAdrift tweet status reports and can respond to your questions).

Displayed reverently in a velvet-lined vitrine are seventeen pieces of trash (representatives of a larger collection of 250, each selected by participants for how it symbolized space debris). These bits of tin foil, bicycle wheels, and squashed ping pong balls were recorded in action to create a library of sonic signatures.

Based on the activation of open databases that track the movements of orbital debris (such as celestrak.com and celestrak.com/satcat), Machine 9 responds to pieces of tracked debris as they pass over where the machine is located. Using the size of each piece as a guide to pitch, Machine 9 selects a sound from a library of 1000 foley audio recordings derived from the pieces of ‘Earthly Debris’ and plays it across a surround sound system of eight speakers. The moment that an object disappears over the detectable horizon, it falls silent.

Visualisations of orbital debris released by the space agencies are becoming ever more accurate and sophisticated. They are compelling, but what is more likely to create the kind of cognitive shift or overview effect needed to incite collective action around climate justice all across the earth-orbit environment continuum is the kind of multidimensional activation of all our senses and the experiential immersion in data that Le Couteur and Ryan are attempting to achieve.

To avoid being consumed by the hyperobjects of our era, design and the research-based, theoretical and historical practices that gather around it will need a more-than-human conception of time and a more-than-geo-centric notion of space.


In 2019 the entrepreneur Elon Musk strapped his $100,000 cherry red convertible Tesla Roadster to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (the most powerful operational rocket at that time) and, with the top down and a mannequin at the wheel listening to David Bowie, sent it far into outer space. Its heliocentric progress that crosses the orbit of Mars can be tracked at whereisroadster.com. 

Philosopher Roland Barthes was knocked down and fatally injured by a laundry van in 1980. He would probably be intrigued by the fact that in less than the average human lifetime, we have gone from it seeming ‘obvious’ that a fossil-fuel-run-Citroën would fall from space to earth, to making it possible for a multi-billionaire to muster five million pounds of rocket thrust to send his electrically powered car from earth 400,000 million kilometres into space, where it is predicted to orbit for hundreds of millions, or even billions of years

Unless of course it collides with a piece of space junk.

In 1584, the cosmological theorist Giordano Bruno wrote three Cosmological Dialogues, including, Of the Infinite Universe and Worlds, in which he laid out his thinking about the limited nature of the human perspective: 

The ancient observed, and we also observe, that sometimes things fall to earth, or some things leave the earth, or whatever parts we may be near […] something passing from us to the moon would look the opposite to those across from us on the moon; where we would say, something has ascended, those moon people, our anticephali, would say that something has descended (Giordano 2014, 260).

In 1600 Bruno was burned to death, deemed a heretic for daring to propose an alternative cosmological perspective beyond the prevailing one of his era. He probably would have been grateful to learn that in 1961 a 22-km-wide impact crater on the moon, with an ejecta radius of up to 150 km, was named in his honour. But he would also be frustrated with how long it has taken us to catch up to his ability to conceive of cosmological pluralism. And, as he pointed out in his careful source citation of ‘the ancient’, catching up is not necessarily about linear time progression; it might require a circular return. 

If we have learned anything from the exploration of space’, wrote historian and political philosopher Hannah Arendt in 1963, ‘it is that man is an inhabitant of a small planet, a tiny part of a universe far too vast to be measured or imagined, and that his existence depends upon an understanding of and willingness to adapt to the rest of the universe, which lies beyond his grasp as a sensing organism’ (2007, 43-55). She argued that human senses are limited in their ability to grasp the vastness of space, and that this presents a challenge to the idea of human achievement. She details how science leads us to distrust our senses and replaces a ‘common sense’ objective world view with a subjective world view where we treat objects as things that are disposable and changeable by man, and the world as man-made. Her question ‘Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?’ still hangs in the balance. Whilst an anthropocenic world view might temporarily or illusorily create the impression of an increased stature for man, it also diminishes it, as in the process humans become as objects among many, just as liable as a plastic spatula to disintegrate into flecks of space junk.

Thus far a conception of design history, which came of age in Britain in the 1970s, has concentrated its efforts on the examination of design within the frameworks of production, consumption and, more recently, mediation. What happens to design after its period of usefulness is over, however, is studied much less. By expanding the paradigm of design history to incorporate a fourth area of concern, disposal, (even if that means we need to extend an account of aftermath to billions of years) we can achieve a fuller understanding of material culture’s impact on the environment, including the far-reaching, long-lasting consequences of one of the most fascinating, humbling, and disturbing of anthropocenic hyperobjects—the accumulation of space junk. As Morton frames it, hyperobjects constitute co-collections, assemblages, metaphors or narratives of other objects or semi-objects. Hyperobjects are also strategies to attempt understanding of what, as Giordano Bruno put it in 1591, ‘innumerable things, vastness and the unrepresentable’. 

To avoid being consumed by the hyperobjects of our era, design and the research-based, theoretical and historical practices that gather around it will need a more-than-human conception of time and a more-than-geo-centric notion of space. It will also need to interface with more disciplines, such as environmental humanities, media archaeology and artistic research, in order to generate the kinds of imaginative yet rigorous research that addresses the urgent challenges facing the planet and the preservation of that most precious of the planet’s commons—its orbital environment.

‘Energy flash’ produced in a simulation of a piece of orbital debris colliding with a spacecraft in orbit, at a speed of up to 17,000 miles an hour. Tested at the Hypervelocity Ballistic Range at NASA’s Ames Research Center, 2017. Image courtesy of NASA.

Orbital debris hole made in the panel of the Solar Max satellite, 2006. Image courtesy of NASA.

Impact crater on one of the windows of the Space Shuttle Challenger following a collision with a paint chip during Space Shuttle Mission 7, 1983. Image courtesy of NASA.

Rendering of distribution of space debris around Earth, 2019. Image courtesy of European Space Agency.

Debris-o-Gram, (live holographic projection of the Earth with each dot in the visualization representing one of 52,829 pieces of catalogued space junk, with its position calculated in real time), 2017, by Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan, Project Adrift, at ‘Cosmos Archaeology: Explorations in Time and Space’, EPFL Pavilions, Lausanne, 16 September 2022-5 February 2023. Image courtesy of Nick Ryan.