Cover Even the smallest piece of debris floating in earth’s orbit can cause damage to active satellites and orbiting spacecraft

And he has the industry experts in on the mission

Just four months into his short term as US president, John F Kennedy presented the nation with a literal moonshot challenge: to put a man on the moon. And with that, the space race for technological superiority went into full swing.

This was also fuelled by the successful launch of the world’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, by the Soviet Union—a Cold War enemy of the US—four years earlier in 1957. The American dream was later realised when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on to the surface of the moon in 1969.

Space has long fascinated humankind. And over the past six decades, space explorations have helped improve our lives on earth, from GPS satellite navigation systems to medical technologies developed from space know-how such as CT (computed tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, just to name a few.

Who is Daan Roosegaarde and what does he want to achieve?

But “Houston, we have a problem”—the space waste that has accumulated over the years have become a global concern. The European Space Agency (ESA) suggests that there are almost 130 million debris objects in space, of which over 900,000 pieces of these “defunct satellites, explosion and collision fragments or discarded rocket bodies” are considered dangerous. If nothing is done, this pollution could cause astronomical damage to existing satellites and orbiting spacecraft, disrupting digital communications on earth.

One man with a mission to clean up these space junk is Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde. The founder of Studio Roosegaarde, a Rotterdam-based social design lab, launched the Space Waste Lab in collaboration with ESA experts last October to capture debris and harness its potential as a new source for creativity that yields sustainable products and experiences.

“A lot of the challenges we are facing today—rising sea levels, light pollution, smog and polluted air—are the result of bad design. But can we use design to engineer a way out of it?” Roosegaarde enthuses when we meet on the sidelines of the Brainstorm Design conference, during Singapore Design Week 2019 in March.

See also: How To Design An Eco-Friendly Home

Understanding space waste

“The Space Waste Lab is a bit daunting for me because you start the project with a question: what is space waste and what can you do with it? So it’s very open. Usually designers, myself included, like control. We want our designs and the details to be perfect. But this time, the scope is so big, and I’m an amateur trying to become an expert,” he explains.

The first order of business for the team was to build a system that could track and visualise in real time the debris orbiting earth at an altitude of 200km to 20,000km. This resulted in the Space Waste Lab Performance where high-powered lasers are beamed at each piece of debris in what is a spectacular light show across the night sky.

Recycling and upcycling

The phase two of the living lab has led to the rise of several design ideas for upcycling space waste. One of them suggests making use of the debris to form a giant solar reflector. This reduces radiation, thus mitigating the effects of climate change. Another project recommends harvesting space junk and converting them into plasma fuel to power satellites. Space waste can also be recycled and repurposed as the building blocks for future moon habitats through the 3D printing of innovative structures.

See also: 5 Eco-Architects You Should Have On Your Radar)

Having a realistic vision

But perhaps the most realistic, or what Roosegaarde cites as the most inspiring project for him personally, is the artificial shooting stars. The premise for what he calls “the modern version of traditional fireworks” is simple—a controlled re-entry of space waste into the atmosphere not only offers a visual spectacle, but also creates an awareness about clean space, without the pollution. The plan is to launch the project at the Dubai World Expo in 2020 or the Expo Floriade Almere in 2022.

The Space Waste Lab is a part of Studio Roosegaarde’s vision to become a creative force that empowers governments, NGOs and global citizens to create clean environments—clean air, clean water, clean energy and now, clean space.

Roosegaarde posits, “These are the new future values for the world. Design, in general, previously focused on objects, including chairs, tables and lamps, which have their respective purposes, but I think the next step is about improving life and connecting with experts such as scientists who are trying to push humanity to a new level.”

See also: 5 Ways To Understand And Break Down The Concept Of Sustainability

Improving lives with the power of design and technology

Roosegaarde is one to walk the talk as his social design lab harnesses the power of design and technology to spark imagination and improve urban living conditions. Some of the firm’s internationally acclaimed works include the Smog Free Project, the world’s largest air purifier that turns smog into jewellery; Waterlicht, a virtual flood that highlights the power of water; and Smart Highway, where roads are charged by solar energy during the day and light up at night.

So between artist and environmental advocate, we ask Roosegaarde about the role that he identifies with the most, and his reply, “I’m an activator—I activate dreams and ideas, I make them happen and put them into the world. When we throw a rock into the river, we create some ripples in hopes that the ideas will be accepted. I hope they grow and become not so special anymore, but part of a new standard. My job is to question reality and come up with new proposals. Technology is important, but imagination and building a better humanity is just as important.”

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