In the story Alice in Wonderland, an opium smoking caterpillar called Absolem is known for his riddles and sage advice.  

While Absolem might not be our best guide, we have a lot to learn from caterpillars. Most importantly, we might learn how caterpillars transform into butterflies. This is because we humans are well overdue for a transformation.

It is not a change in our physical form – like in the movie The Thing – that we need, but a transformation of our global consciousness. In particular, we need to transform the way we value the future. Anyone who knows a bit about sustainability will have heard the term ‘intergenerational equity.’ This is the intelligent-speak for ‘living today with the well-being of the people of the future in mind.’ Putting these words into practice is well overdue.

One project by the Long Future Foundation is exploring the environmental impacts of the space industry. Through our research, we have discovered a fascinating example of just how short-sighted we humans have become. Specifically, we have started to tease out the details of the flock of military satellites in Low Earth Orbit containing radioactive power sources.

There have been dozens of these satellites launched by the US and former USSR, powered with materials such as plutonium, uranium and cobalt. Despite numerous email exchanges with space experts, we have yet to find a comprehensive source of information that details the consequences of these satellites inevitably returning to Earth. For example, if you wanted to know when the 12 kilograms of uranium 238 that powers the Kosmos 1818 naval radar satellite is going to rain down through our atmosphere, you are plumb out of luck. You’ll have to figure it out for yourselves. Maybe the military has the data secretly stored away somewhere; who knows?

This is no idle concern. Some researchers are linking an increase in global lung cancer rates to radioactive fallout from this material as it re-enters our atmosphere. For example, a satellite incident in 1964 let loose a kilogram of plutonium in our atmosphere as the satellite burned up “harmlessly.” The space industry continues to use the euphemism “harmlessly” when referring to these events.

The Long Future Foundation believes human civilisation could still be thriving one billion and more years from now if only we can begin to act sensibly. We have taken it upon ourselves to determine when this nuclear rain is likely to fall.

On the face of it, it seems a simple task, albeit one requiring a bit of complex maths. First, we need to compile a list of satellites that have been launched with radioactive materials, and the date of the launch. We need to know the amount and type of these materials, and the orbits that the satellites follow. From the orbital parameters, it is possible to determine when the satellites will re-enter the atmosphere and disintegrate. Knowing the time between launch and disintegration, and the decay rate of the nuclear material, we should be able to assess how much radioactive material will be in the satellite when it hits the mesosphere at 40,000 kilometres per hour and begins to ablate in a fiery streak. This information will help us assess how much radioactive material will be in the wisp of ex-satellite smoke that will then circle the Earth and eventually fall to the ground and the ocean.

Complicating these calculations is the fact that the atmosphere is now hotter than it was when the satellites were launched. This means that atmosphere is expanding and becoming denser further out into space, which means earlier decay of the satellite orbits.

The Long Future Foundation forecasts that the space industry is on the verge of a massive expansion due to the advent of space tourism, advances in reusable rockets, and an unsettling and growing obsession with putting humans on Mars. Nowhere in the literature we read through in our research did we find any discussion of the space industry taking serious responsibility for its environmental impacts, let alone properly cataloguing their nuclear material in space, managing the long term impacts, or even defining the scope of this threat. If our forecasts are correct, it’s high time for this apparent attitude to change.

This disturbing insight makes us think that it might be time to get to the caterpillar for some advice.  Specifically, we could ask, what is the trigger that causes the caterpillar to spin its cocoon and begin its transformation?  We might also ask the caterpillar if it has any ideas how we humans might start our own transformation, before the first of the radioactive rain starts to fall. Or, maybe I should just start a tinfoil umbrella business.

Written in collaboration with Guy Lane, director of the Long Future Foundation