The "enshittification" of tech extends to space, too

From Google to Netflix, tech is becoming more useless. The commercialization of space is no different

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published October 24, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Planet Earth with a pile of garbage spilling into outer space (Getty Images/urfinguss)
Planet Earth with a pile of garbage spilling into outer space (Getty Images/urfinguss)

Alright, rocket jockeys. Get in here. I don’t know what kind of half-cocked space-frat party you satellite barons have been throwing these last 20 years, but low Earth orbit is becoming so thoroughly and hazardously enshittified by private companies and their broken satellites that something has to be done before you send us into a global telecom blackout and turn the skies into a space-gore B-movie full of dead astronauts

The Federal Communications Commission has started writing tickets for wrist-slap fines for space trash, beginning with the $150,000 it’s charging Dish Network after the company failed to cleanup its dead EchoStar-7 satellite. Not that $150,000 is going to matter much to a company reporting $16.7 billion in revenue in 2022, but the fact that the FCC has to do something at all should be a wakeup call that the enshittification of space has indeed commenced. 

And there’s no better term for what’s happening. It’s true that Cory Doctorow coined enshittification, as known as platform decay, specifically to address the inevitable decline of corporate-owned social media sites and other internet intermediaries which sabotage user service and interoperability for the interests of advertisers (whom platform owners invariably repel by squeezing them for greater profit). 

The corporate balkanization of the internet into unusable-yet-unavoidable platforms full of garbage is a predictable foreshadowing of what the continued privatization of space is going to look like.

But the underlying principle and characteristic trash-trail of enshittification are becoming just as applicable to geosynchronous and low Earth orbit as they are to Twitter and TikTok. And don’t get snippy with me about how different social media is from low Earth orbit; the digital-physical distinction between the internet and nearby space matters little when you consider that both have become the unregulated playfields of the rich where public-option participants (be they municipal broadband outfits or NASA) are either underfunded, or actively elbowed out by private-interest lobbying.

The corporate balkanization of the internet into unusable-yet-unavoidable platforms full of garbage is a predictable foreshadowing of what the continued privatization of space is going to look like. Centralization, reckless security operations and over-collection of user-surveillance data have turned gigantic internet intermediaries into digital superfund sites where massive breaches are just waiting to happen — at which point the cybersecurity ablation cascade is sure to crash into any number of online services. The internet flirts with its own version of Kessler syndrome every time a flickering Google or AWS outage temporarily makes half your favorite sites unusable. 

Meanwhile, NASA says there are more than 9,000 metric tons of space debris hanging around the globe as of January 2022. That’s about 500,000 pieces of space debris between 1 and 10 cm long, with particles larger than 1 mm exceeding 100 million in number. And those specks can move 10 times faster than a bullet. Even when they’re only at orbital speed, they’re still hurtling around that crowded zone at up to 17,500 miles per hour. And it’s all out there in a big trash-belt, just waiting to set off an internet-crashing, astronaut-killing catastrophe of inestimable proportion. 

Even though active satellites already have to dodge trash chunks routinely, an estimated 25,000 more satellites are expected to be added to the crowded zone by 2031. Among those are the thousands-strong fleets that will be launched by the likes of SpaceX, Amazon, Viasat and OneWeb. 

NASA says any debris in orbits below 600 km will typically fall back to Earth (and thus burn up in the atmosphere) within “several years.” And, in one hopeful move, SpaceX has already said it plans to keep its Starlink satellites at an even lower, 500 km orbit. But that doesn’t help the problem of toxic metals from this crap which scientists say are now polluting our upper atmosphere, nor the light pollution these eyesores create. 

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And what about everyone else? The majority of space trash is hanging around at the 800 km to 1,000 km orbital range. 

“Debris left in orbits below 600 km normally fall back to Earth within several years. At altitudes of 800 km, the time for orbital decay is often measured in centuries. Above 1,000 km, orbital debris will normally continue circling the Earth for a thousand years or more,” NASA says. 

Meanwhile, we’ve got car-sized space crud smashing into Australia, and another hunk of SpaceX scrap cratering into a Washington farmer’s property. One Congressional report from the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that by 2035 falling debris from US-approved low Earth orbit tech could kill or injure a person every two years. 

As space environmentalist Moriba Jah wrote for Scientific American, “we are building a new space economy that is sadly reminiscent of the gold rush: companies and governments are rushing to stake their claim on as much orbital territory as possible without regard to the consequences.”

Are there plans in the works to fix this? Sure. For one, a bill from Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) would kickstart a program to reduce the debris. And the FAA is trying to create time limits for satellites to improve the decommissioning process, as some researchers try to figure out an assigned-parking style plan. The European Space Agency is already funding space missions focused on sky clean-up, and the Japanese government is throwing up to $80 million at junk-removal company Astroscale for its research program. The space-cleaning sector is heating up with emerging companies, and NASA is ready to blast this space trash with some $200,000 AI-powered lasers and $850,000 worth of TransAstra garbage bags (Hefty, this could have been your moment).

We need your help to stay independent

I don’t know what else it’s going to take for you private space-faring companies to get your act together. Do we need to make a commercial for this to get the Stop Being Trashy movement off the ground? Here’s the pitch: We zoom in on an AI-generated deepfake of Iron Eyes Cody inside the International Space Station, staring through a porthole window at the Earth and its swirling trash-belt. We move to an extreme close-up as he expels a single glycerin tear into zero-G. We pull back and see he’s actually awaiting destruction by a massive object hurtling toward the station — it’s a Tesla.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Salon's Lab Notes, a weekly newsletter from our Science & Health team.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Digital Decay Fcc Internet Satellites Social Media Space Space Debris Space Junk