Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes manga series warns us that going into space is a messy adventure and that space pollution is a real threat.
The manga world isn’t afraid to tackle complex real-life issues, and Makoto Yukimura, the author of Vinland Saga, wrote a seinen manga series named Planets to warn readers of the serious obstacles facing astronauts at the start of the 21st century. Space is polluted, and that’s a real problem.
The story of Planets introduces Hachirota Hoshino as he and his teammates aboard the Toy box work hard to clean up man-made debris orbiting Earth. If they can’t do the job, the overwhelming amount of space junk will make future space travel downright impossible. This is a problem that real space agencies also face, including privatized ones.
The problem of Kessler syndrome in planets
The story of Planets takes place in the decades to come, when humanity has established colonies on the Moon and regularly sends rockets and advanced spacecraft to Earth’s orbit and beyond. However, Kessler syndrome is an imminent threat that only garbage collectors like Hachirota can tackle. Right now, Earth’s orbit is absolutely littered with debris from space expeditions and previous disasters, such as abandoned rocket boosters and pieces of destroyed satellites or shuttles. Even a small piece of debris can move fast enough to crash into a spacecraft and severely damage it, and collisions will create even more debris, accelerating the problem. During the main events of Planets, this problem, known as Kessler syndrome, is about to reach a tipping point.
Space cleaning crews are working hard to pick up debris and clear up the garbage field surrounding Earth, but Hachirota and his companions are fighting a losing battle, and things get even more complicated when the terrorists of the space, which seek to protect space from human colonization and exploitation, commit highly destructive acts that can further accelerate Kessler syndrome. The richest nations on Earth have gained a foothold in space, but at this rate they will be the only ones, as the debris field prevents other nations from sending their own spacecraft and crew to catch up and join the colonization effort. First nations to explore space may recklessly make such endeavors impossible in the second wave of colonial expansion in the solar system.
Solutions and implications of Kessler syndrome
In works of fiction and in real life, many astronomers and engineers are familiar with the problem of Kessler syndrome and have come up with solutions to keep the space clear enough for future missions. One solution is to use a high-powered laser “broom” and sweep it away, vaporizing any space junk in the area. The goal is to clear the space debris without blowing it up, as blowing up space debris with an explosive device would only make the problem worse. If enough material is removed from one side of a piece of space debris, the object’s orbit will change and it will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere safely. A similar solution is to ensure that all rocket boosters and other spent items are returned to Earth’s atmosphere with specialized systems. Some theories involve sending a probe or spacecraft armed with magnets to collect trash nearby and return to Earth with it.
The question of Kessler’s syndrome in space colonization plans echoes the pollution on Earth, warning humanity that all progress comes at a cost and that the side effects of such progress can spiral out of control if ignored for too long. This may serve as a parallel to air pollution from factories and cars, accelerating climate change due to industrial manufacturing and the use of fossil fuels in vehicles. New technology can be exciting, but if used recklessly and thoughtlessly it can betray its user, and space exploration already faces this problem.
NASA, JAXA, and private space companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX all face the problem of Kessler syndrome, and if these agencies don’t take responsibility for their actions, like Planets warns, the “last frontier” will definitely become out of reach and its potential wasted. The technology for entering space exists, but human error can become the real limiting factor. Maybe humanity isn’t quite ready to live in space after all – at least, not until humanity learns to clean up after itself and respect natural environments of all kinds. .
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