The Economist 词汇解析(9)Let’s clean up the space junk orbiting Earth

by admin on 2018年9月26日

本期原文选自The Economist 2016-8-27底Leaders板块Brave new

Our lives depend on a world we can’t see. Think about your week so far.
Have you watched TV, used GPS, checked the weather or even ate a meal?
These many things that enable our daily lives rely either directly or
indirectly on satellites. And while we often take for granted the
services that satellites provide us, the satellites themselves deserve
our attention as they are leaving a lasting mark on the space they

Brave new worlds

New discoveries, intelligent devices and
irrepressible【1】dreamers are once again making space exciting

People around the world rely on satellite infrastructure every day for
information, entertainment and to communicate. There’s agricultural and
environmental monitoring, Internet connectivity, navigation. Satellites
even play a role in the operation of our financial and energy markets.
But these satellites that we rely on day in and day out have a finite
life. They might run out of propellant, they could malfunction, or they
may just naturally reach the end of their mission life. At this point,
these satellites effectively become space junk, cluttering the orbital


So imagine you’re driving down the highway on a beautiful, sunny day out
running errands. You’ve got your music cranked, your windows rolled
down, with the cool breeze blowing through your hair. Feels nice, right?
Everything is going smoothly until suddenly your car stutters and stalls
right in the middle of the highway. So now you have no choice but to
abandon your car where it is on the highway. Maybe you were lucky enough
to be able to move it out of the way and into a shoulder lane so that
it’s out of the way of other traffic. A couple of hours ago, your car
was a useful machine that you relied on in your everyday life. Now, it’s
a useless hunk of metal taking up space in a valuable transportation
network. And imagine international roadways all cluttered with broken
down vehicles that are just getting in the way of other traffic. And
imagine the debris that would be strewn everywhere if a collision
actually happened, thousands of smaller pieces of debris becoming new

It may turn out to be a bare and barren rock【2】. The fact that
liquid water could be flowing across the surface of the planet just
discovered orbiting Proxima Centauri【3】, the nearest star to
the sun, does not mean that any actually is【4】—nor for that
that it has an atmosphere. The fact that water and air,
if present, could make this new world habitable does not mean that it
is, in fact, a home to alien life.

This is the paradigm of the satellite industry. Satellites that are no
longer working are often left to deorbit over many, many years, or only
moved out of the way as a temporary solution. And there are no
international laws in space to enforce us to clean up after ourselves.

【2】此处采用了修辞手法“头韵”(Alliteration,也称作head rhyme或者initial

So the world’s first satellite, Sputnik I, was launched in 1957, and in
that year, there were only a total of three launch attempts. Decades
later and dozens of countries from all around the world have launched
thousands of more satellites into orbit, and the frequency of launches
is only going to increase in the future, especially if you consider
things like the possibility of 900-plus satellite constellations being

magnitude stars),半人马座A星(Alpha Centauri)和半人马座B星(Beta
Centauri)以及半人马所欧米伽球状星团(the globular cluster Omega

Now, we send satellites to different orbits depending on what they’re
needed for. One of the most common places we send satellites is the low
Earth orbit, possibly to image the surface of Earth at up to about 2,000
kilometers altitude. Satellites there are naturally buffeted by Earth’s
atmosphere, so their orbits naturally decay, and they’ll eventually burn
up, probably within a couple of decades. Another common place we send
satellites is the geostationary orbit at about 35,000 kilometers
altitude. Satellites there remain in the same place above Earth as the
Earth rotates, which enables things like communications or television
broadcast, for example. Satellites in high orbits like these could
remain there for centuries. And then there’s the orbit coined “the
graveyard,” the ominous junk or disposal orbits, where some satellites
are intentionally placed at the end of their life so that they’re out of
the way of common operational orbits.

【4】此处省略了有的词语,结合前面的分句可知,完整的发表应该是any liquid
water actually is flowing across the surface of the planet……

Of the nearly 7,000 satellites launched since the late 1950s, only about
one in seven is currently operational, and in addition to the satellites
that are no longer working, there’s also hundreds of thousands of
marble-sized debris and millions of paint chip-sized debris that are
also orbiting around the Earth. Space debris is a major risk to space
missions, but also to the satellites that we rely on each and every day.


Now, because space debris and junk has become increasingly worrisome,
there have been some national and international efforts to develop
technical standards to help us limit the generation of additional
debris. So for example, there are recommendations for those low-Earth
orbiting spacecraft to be made to deorbit in under 25 years, but that’s
still a really long time, especially if a satellite hasn’t been working
for years. There’s also mandates for those dead geostationary spacecraft
to be moved into a graveyard orbit. But neither of these guidelines is
binding under international law, and the understanding is that they will
be implemented through national mechanisms. These guidelines are also
not long-term, they’re not proactive, nor do they address the debris
that’s already up there. They’re only in place to limit the future
creation of debris. Space junk is no one’s responsibility.

But it might be.

What is exciting about this new world is not what is known—which, so
far, is almost nothing (see page 67). It is what is unknown and the
possibilities it may contain. It is the chance that【6】there is
life beneath that turbulent red sun, and that humans might be able to
recognise it from 40 trillion kilometres away. In the immense
distances of space that is close enough to mean that, some day,
perhaps, someone might send probes to visit it and in so doing
glimpse【7】a totally different form of life. In the thrill
such possibilities sits all that is most promising about the
exploration of space.

Now, Mount Everest is actually an interesting comparison of a new
approach to how we interact with our environments, as it’s often given
the dubious honor of being the world’s highest garbage dump. Decades
after the first conquest of the world’s highest peak, tons of rubbish
left behind by climbers has started to raise concern, and you may have
read in the news that there’s speculation that Nepal will crack down on
mountaineers with stricter enforcement of penalties and legal
obligations. The goal, of course, is to persuade climbers to clean up
after themselves, so maybe local not-for-profits will pay climbers who
bring down extra waste, or expeditions might organize voluntary cleanup
trips. And yet still many climbers feel that independent groups should
police themselves. There’s no simple or easy answer, and even
well-intentioned efforts at conservation often run into problems. But
that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to protect the
environments that we rely and depend on, and like Everest, the remote
location and inadequate infrastructure of the orbital environment make
waste disposal a challenging problem. But we simply cannot reach new
heights and create an even higher garbage dump, one that’s out of this


The reality of space is that if a component on a satellite breaks down,
there really are limited opportunities for repairs, and only at great
cost. But what if we were smarter about how we designed satellites? What
if all satellites, regardless of what country they were built in, had to
be standardized in some way for recycling, servicing or active
deorbiting? What if there actually were international laws with teeth
that enforced end-of-life disposal of satellites instead of moving them
out of the way as a temporary solution? Or maybe satellite manufacturers
need to be charged a deposit to even launch a satellite into orbit, and
that deposit would only be returned if the satellite was disposed of
properly or if they cleaned up some quota of debris. Or maybe a
satellite needs to have technology on board to help accelerate deorbit.


There are some encouraging signs. The UK’s TechDemoSat-1, launched in
2014, for example, was designed for end-of-life disposal via a small
drag sail. This works for the satellite because it’s small, but
satellites that are higher or in larger orbits or are larger altogether,
like the size of school buses, will require other disposal options. So
maybe you get into things like high-powered lasers or tugging using nets
or tethers, as crazy as those sound in the short term.


And then one really cool possibility is the idea of orbital tow trucks
or space mechanics. Imagine if a robotic arm on some sort of space tow
truck could fix the broken components on a satellite, making them usable
again. Or what if that very same robotic arm could refuel the propellant
tank on a spacecraft that relies on chemical propulsion just like you or
I would refuel the fuel tanks on our cars? Robotic repair and
maintenance could extend the lives of hundreds of satellites orbiting
around the Earth.

All our yesterdays

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the first satellite,
Sputnik. The intervening decades have brought wonders. Men have
looked back on【9】the beauty of the Earth from the bright-lit
Moon—and returned safely home. The satellites of America’s Global
Positioning System (GPS) have created a world in which no one need
ever be lost again—changing the human experience of place rather as
the wristwatch changed the experience of time. Robots have
trundled【10】across the plains of Mars and
swooped【11】through the rings of Saturn. The Hubble space
telescope has revealed that wherever you look, if you look hard enough
you will find galaxies scattered like grains of sand across the

Whatever the disposal or cleanup options we come up with, it’s clearly
not just a technical problem. There’s also complex space laws and
politics that we have to sort out. Simply put, we haven’t found a way to
use space sustainably yet.


Exploring, innovating to change the way we live and work are what we as
humans do, and in space exploration, we’re literally moving beyond the
boundaries of Earth. But as we push thresholds in the name of learning
and innovation, we must remember that accountability for our
environments never goes away. There is without doubt congestion in the
low Earth and geostationary orbits, and we cannot keep launching new
satellites to replace the ones that have broken down without doing
something about them first, just like we would never leave a broken down
car in the middle of the highway. Next time you use your phone, check
the weather or use your GPS, think about the satellite technologies that
make those activities possible. But also think about the very impact
that the satellites have on the environment surrounding Earth, and help
spread the message that together we must reduce our impact.


Earth orbit is breathtakingly beautiful and our gateway to exploration.
It’s up to us to keep it that way.


Thank you.


Even so, space has of late【13】become a bit dull. No man has
ventured beyond low Earth orbit in more than four decades (no woman
has done so ever). Astronauts and cosmonauts commute to an
International Space Station that has little purpose beyond providing a
destination for their capsules, whose design would have been familiar
in the 1960s. All the solar system’s planets have been visited by
probes. The hard graft【14】of teasing out【15】their
secrets now offers less immediate spectacle.




The use of space is integral to all sorts of things, including the
working of armies, air forces and navies, but its role in GPS—or, for
that matter, Google Maps—barely merits a mention【16】. Some
companies make money from putting satellites into orbit, and not just
the kind that do things for governments. But there is an undeniable
bathos【17】to the fact that the biggest business in arealm once
synonymous with human transcendence is providing viewers on Earthwith
umpty-seven channels of satellite TV.

【16】barely merits a mention几乎不值得一提


Now that is changing. The technological progress that has put
supercomputers into the pockets of half the world has made it possible
do a lot more in orbit with much smaller spacecraft. A generation of
entrepreneurs forged in Silicon Valley— and backed by some of its
venture capitalists【18】—are launching highly capable
newdevices ranging in size from shoe boxes to fridges and flying them
inconstellations of dozens or hundreds (see Technology Quarterly).
Such machinesare vastly more capable, kilo for kilo, than their
predecessors and cheaper, toboot. They are making space interesting


The first new businesses are based on something easily returned from
space to Earth: data. Although companies such as DigitalGlobe, in
Denver, have been selling satellite images for decades, most of their
customers have been spooks【19】and soldiers. Today’s
entrepreneurs at companies like Planet, Black- Sky and Spire are
hoping to sell not just snapshots of places that brass
want to peer at【21】. They are offering
comprehensive and constantly updated global data sets. Ever better
machine- learning programs can mine these for information on crops,
shipping, traffic, wildlife or the environment that will be used by
everyone from eco-warriors to hedge funds. Add the potential of small,
smart satellites in their hundreds or even thousands to connect the
billions of people too poor and remote to have yet been reached by the
phone revolution, or the trillions of devices in the “internet of
“, and this new space age will bring more than ever to
the world below.





And that is just the start. Elon Musk, the founder of both Tesla, a
car company, and SpaceX, a rocket company, wants to found a colony on
Mars and will soon be building spacecraft that can go there. Jeff
Bezos, of Amazon, is following a steady and somewhat secretive path
that may one day see the skies filled with automated factories and
asteroid【23】mines. Yuri Milner, an investor who got
intoFacebook early, is spending $100m on the most serious attempt yet
to detect civilisations around other stars. He is also funding a
programme aimed atstudying planets like the one around Proxima
Centauri with probes travelling ata fifth the speed of
light—spacecraft so tiny as to make today’s shoe-box satellites look
like battleships.


New life, and new civilisations Even if they fail, these attempts to
reinvigorate space will be instructive and thrilling. Just as on
Earth, states will always have a role as, among other things,
protectors of their national satellite infrastructure and as the
enforcers of the laws they have put in place to govern the commercial
exploitation of space. But in the years ahead, as the cost of hardware
plummets【24】and as systems on Earth learn to make better use
of data, the growing number of star-struck【25】entrepreneurs
promise to relieve governmentsof the burden of space-age dreams with a
torrent of innovation.



There is no objective need for people to colonise space or for them to
look at planets in other solar systems in order to answer questions
about life’s place in the universe. People can survive without such
journeys or knowledge. Some, though, see the possibilities, stand
in awe【26】
, and start making plans. They may notsucceed. The
planets may turn out to be barren rocks. Infinite space, in the end,
might be just a nutshell’s worth of emptiness.


But, then again, it might not.


  1. 修辞手法:Alliteration 头韵,a bare and barren rock。

  2. 有关太空的辞藻:Proxima

  3. 又成分可省略,使句子简洁。

  4. 表示适用于其他一样栽状况的促进关系,可以动用for that mbetway必威atter。

  5. 发挥可能时,除了possibility, probability,还足以据此chance。


  1. thrill表示惊险、兴奋,thriller是危险小说。

  2. “海洋”的英文,除了ocean, sea,还好是the deep。

  3. “最近”的英文,除了recently,还足以是of late。

  4. 麻烦之做事,除了hard work,还可是graft。

  5. “回忆”的英文,除了recall,还足以是look back on。

  6. “俯冲、向下重冲”,英文就待一个单词swoop。

  7. 带来轮的东西缓慢移动,英文是trundle。

  8. 探索秘密 tease out a secret。

  9. 几未值得一提 barely merit a mention。

  10. 不当之突兀变化 bathos。

  11. 风险基金 venture capital,风险资本家 venture capitalist。

  12.  spook 除了“鬼”,还有间谋、特工的意思。

  13. 物联网 internet of things。

  14. 下降、速降 plummet(名词是铅锤的意)。

  15. 追星的 star-struck。

  16. 对…敬畏 stand/be in awe of sb/sth。

  17. 狂热的希家 irrepressible dreamer。

  18. brass 除了黄铜,还得是设人头。




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