At a time when global economies are just beginning to get to grips with their impact on the environment, one man is thinking about waste on a much larger scale.
Daan Roosegaarde—artist, social designer, and founder of Studio Roosegaarde—explained Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference how he has given his team the unglamorous job of cleaning up space. The plan is to track and eventually remove waste from the earth’s orbit in a spectacular display—or even better, up-cycle it as the raw materials used to construct settlements on the moon.
Since the 1950s, we’ve been as careless with space as we have with earth, dumping old satellites, rocket fuel cells, and other debris completely unchecked. Today, more than 8 million kilograms of man-made waste is orbiting the planet, continuously colliding and breaking into ever smaller pieces of space waste.
After seeing a shocking visualization of this space waste, Roosegaarde became fascinated with the idea of cleaning it all up. His motivation is to prevent the ridiculous situation we could face when there is so much junk that space exploration becomes too dangerous. In Singapore, the artist explained this with a neat one-liner: “The good news is, we found life outside planet earth. The bad news is, we can’t get there!”
Roosegaarde sees space waste as a “problem with no solution,” so in partnership with the European Space Agency he created the Space Waste Lab to find a viable one. For phase one the team built a system that can track and visualize space waste orbiting the earth. This culminated in the award-winning Space Waste Lab Performance, which uses this technology to create a spectacular light show, beaming high powered lasers at each individual piece of debris as it passes in the night sky.
This beautiful mix of art and technology hints at Roosegaarde’s plans for the next phase. In Dubai, millions of dollars are spent each year on fireworks. Instead of spending this money on something that pollutes, he wants to use it to develop technology that can create artificial shooting stars. He dreams of “designing a missing link between fantasy and science … so it becomes new poetry.” The clever plan is to use mini-satellites connected to nets, collect the space trash, and drag it into the earth’s atmosphere, burning it up on re-entry and creating a breath-taking visual display for the Dubai World Expo 2020 and the Expo Floriade Almere in 2022.
Roosegaarde’s work undoubtedly gets the message across that space waste is a problem that needs to be solved. He is also fully aware that it has no effect when scientists tell the world that an environmental problem might start to impact their lives at some point in the future. “People won’t change because of facts or numbers,” he said, “but if we can trigger the imagination of a new world, that’s the way to activate people.”
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.