America’s prison catastrophe: Can we undo it?
The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?
Prisons in America, specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses.
For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling.
And the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it.
People who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance.
The impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal.
There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them.
This prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis.
MARIE GOTTSCHALK: The United States is the world's leading warden. It has more people incarcerated in prison and jail, as in absolute numbers, and as a proportion of the population, than any other country in the world. So it incarcerates about 700 per 100,000 people in prison or jail. This is about five to 12 times the rate of other Western countries and Japan. We've got about 160,000 people who are serving life sentences in the United States now, and a number of them who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, in some cases, equals the entire prison populations of other large countries.
In my state alone of Pennsylvania, we're spending as much just to send somebody, keep someone in a state prison, as to send them to college, at some of the leading colleges or universities in the state for the year. There's a political issue about the legitimacy of the political system that locks up so many people, and disproportionately locks up so many people of color, and so many people who are poor. So often when we talk about prisons and jails, we talk about the numbers, how many people are in prison, or how many people in jail. What we overlook is that we have some of the most degrading, dehumanizing prisons and jails in any developed country.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting HIV AIDS. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting tuberculosis. Going to an American prison increases your chance of being raped, whether you're a man or a woman, and increases your chances of being raped either by prison staff or by other prisoners, and so on. I mean, it's just appalling what goes on in our prisons. I think it's completely uncontroversial that these things are appalling, you are not sentenced to AIDS, you are not sentenced to rape, you are sentenced to incarceration.
DAMIEN ECHOLS: The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. You know, they're not gonna spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing, so it's not like you're gonna see a real doctor or a real dentist. You know there's, at one point I've been hit in the face so many times by prison guards that it had caused a lot of nerve damage in my teeth. So I was in horrendous pain. Your choices are live in pain, or let him pull your teeth out. I didn't want them to pull my teeth out. So I had to find techniques that would allow me to cope with the physical pain.
SHAKA SENGHOR: When I think about my journey through, in prison, I went through some very adverse experiences. I had some significant obstacles to overcome, including, you know, longterm solitary confinement, which they estimate is designed to drive a person crazy after 90 days. And what I found in that environment is that people figure out ways to cope and to, survive when they're forced to do so.
LIZA JESSIE PETERSON: The 13th amendment in the constitution, in the United States Constitution, it says that slavery is illegal. So we can't have slavery anymore, except for punishment of a crime. So everybody get your constitution out, look up the 13th amendment, and you see the clause that says except for punishment of a crime. So if you are committed- if you are convicted of a crime, then you're exempt from that 13th amendment saying that slavery, you know, is abolished. So that means that you're allowed to work as a slave. Slave labor, slave wages.
So you have people working for 10 cent an hour, 11 cent an hour, who are, you know, doing agriculture, working for huge corporations. You know, I don't want to name them because there's so many, but you know, a lot of the goods and services that we take for granted. Clothing lines, computer parts, airplane parts, military equipment, food that we buy, organically grown. These things are being manufactured in prisons, in prison farms, in prison factories, by inmates.
SENGHOR: Prisons in America specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses we have in our society. When I was in prison, I worked for 17 cents an hour. That was my starting rate working in the kitchen. But there's also big corporations who invest in prison labor, because they can get this labor for $1.50 an hour, and then the sad part about it is that, in turn, they don't even hire these men and women when they're actually released from prison.
GOTTSCHALK: We have many people, not only do they serve their time, but once they leave, it's still as if they have an F, felon, as sort of the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives, because they've served their time, but they're not allowed to vote, they're not allowed to get welfare benefits, they can't get food stamps, they may not be able to get student loans, they may not be allowed to live in certain places, and they may not be able- permitted to get licenses for certain jobs, even jobs like hairstylist, which many people learn in prison. They learn how to be barbers and then they come out, they can't get licensed because they have a- a criminal conviction, and face extreme discrimination.
SENGHOR: I walked out of prison with a lot of optimism, despite being told by the officers that I will probably be back in six months. And when I walked out, I thought that I was returning to a society that would be a lot more forgiving, and a lot more open to me getting a second chance if I was willing to follow the rules of society. So, get out, look for a job, you know, prove that I want to work, volunteer in my community, you know, figure out ways to add value. And sadly and unfortunately, society is not really forgiving, and not really as open to second chances as I thought they will be. And it's really sad in the sense that 90% of people who are incarcerated will at some point return home. And we have a choice in how we welcome men and women back to our community.
I personally believe that there's not a human being that isn't without flaws, that hasn't had a bad moment. And nobody will want to be held hostage to that moment for the rest of their life. Once a person has served their time, that means that they should come out with a clean slate and an opportunity to start over. And if we want them to have a successful transition, it means we have to be willing to give them a true second chance, and not keep bringing up the past, unless they're, you know, repeating that behavior. But in most cases, most people want to just get out, move on with their life, find employment, find a safe place to live, and be free to enjoy the fullness of life.
JOHNNY C TAYLOR JR: :I'm a taxpayer, and anything that we can do to reduce recidivism, keep people off the rolls as an expense, a government expense and a prison, and as taxpayers, is a positive. So there's that part of me. You know, we have 7.3 million open jobs, and only 6 million people currently looking for jobs, which means we have a talent shortage. And if we could do anything to eliminate that talent shortage, that's 1.3 million people roughly. Every year, some 700,000 or so people are released from jails and prisons in America. So just taking a— we can use some of that population, that 700,000 person population to make a dent in that 1.3 million person deficit. So it's just practically smart.
And then the third part of me, which is more humanitarian-based, is people who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance. It is just, I mean, because all of us have made mistakes, some have been caught, some haven't, but these people have presumably paid their debt to society. And you know, if the idea is I make a mistake at 25 years old, I go to jail for five years, or prison for five years, and then I get out. What do I have to look forward to, if forever, I'm going to wear the scarlet letter, you know, convict to see, that says I'll never get another opportunity? Life is over there.
The Holy Grail of this would be if we could identify people who are six months, a year away from release, and begin giving them transitional skills. You know, work skills, life skills. Think about this. I was just meeting with someone who's been incarcerated for 25 years, the cellphone as we know it didn't exist then. So when they come out, they're gonna have to get adjusted to all of that the world has literally transformed in 25 years. So in an ideal state, we'll begin helping them transition back into a world that sort of they pushed the pause button two and a half decades ago. And we've got to catch them up pretty quickly so that they acclimate, and don't recidivate. That's number one. But once we do get them out, the most important thing we can do is get them back to work—housing and work. And they're sort of inextricably intertwined, you know, but housing is critical. And we've got to find places for people to have a permanent place. Mind you, they've had housing for some significant period of time, and on the outside, absent that there's an instability that makes them more vulnerable, and then you've got to pay for that housing, which is where the job comes in.
We employers have to reach out to this population, and let all of our biases go away. And we really do have to overcome our own biases. You know, we talk about implicit bias, unconscious bias, people think, "Oh, that's just in the context of race and gender." Well, the fact of the matter is we have a lot of biases, one of which is a bias that we have against the formerly incarcerated. And maybe it's because of television, and everything that we see in movies, and the characterizations of people who are in jail, but all of that comes through whether we're conscious of it or not, when we are talking to someone who we know has been incarcerated. We have some interesting research that says roughly 80% of HR managers say, "I'm interested and would be willing to hire the formerly incarcerated." Cherm's research says there's no bias at that level. Where we get into the bias and have had it, and seen it historically, was customers and other employees. Those are the biggies. You know, there's this NIMBY concept which says, "Yeah, I like the idea of hiring a formerly incarcerated, but not to sit next to my daughter at work." So, "Not in my backyard." That's the NIMBY concept. And so, we've had to work on that. Fortunately, we have some new research that says employees themselves, as a result of this narrative changing, and we're re positioning the formerly incarcerated, have said, "I'm okay." Three quarters of employees have said, "I'm okay with you bringing people into the workplace for nonviolent crimes."
Similarly, about three quarters of customers have said, "For nonviolent crimes, I'm willing to buy from a company that openly hires the formerly incarcerated, a product or a service." They're willing to do that. Those were two major hurdles in the past. And what we're seeing is, as a result of us changing the narrative, these are not bad people, they're people who made mistakes, and that every one of us has made them, and is e- entitled to a second chance, we're changing the narrative around hiring formerly incarcerated.
GOTTSCHALK: The public, and my students, this often happens, right? The logical thing is we lock up more people, we should reduce the crime rate, because there are fewer people who are out on the street to commit crimes. What we have found, myself as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Incarceration, we studied the best data. And in fact, the impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal. And the more people you incarcerate, the even less of an impact it has on reducing the crime rate, and it actually may increase the crime rate because people who serve time in jail, the conditions in jail and prison may actually make people more criminogenic. And also, you destabilize many communities by taking so many young people at the prime of their lives out of those communities.
So one of the first things the public has to realize is locking more people up doesn't necessarily increase the safety of their communities, and it actually may decrease the safety of the communities, and that a better solution is to not lock people up in the first place. Now, does that mean that it's a perfect world where no one will go out and ever commit a heinous crime? No, that- there's always that possibility, but we can never promise everybody a perfect world. If we wanted a perfect world, we would lock everybody up. And we're not going to do that, but this is not a risk that is a huge risk that we shouldn't be taking for many of the people, and if you talk to many wardens or superintendents of prisons, you talk to them informally off the record, they say they can go through their prison, and probably identify 30 or 40% of the people who really don't need to be there.
ROBERT PERKINSON: What needs to happen is we need to have, as a central goal, not just trying to make conditions of confinement more humane or help people who are released from prison—there's like 750,000 people a year who get out of prison, they're tossed out on the street with stigma, without money, angrier and more alienated than they were before. They didn't get much treatment behind bars. So there's a lot of emphasis on reentry right now, as well there should be. But in my view, there really has to be an emphasis on reduction of this out of control, bloated government bureaucracy that is causing, and it's unlike other types of government waste.
I mean, if we have a contract to build a highway and it gets double billed, or air marshals, take air marshals, for example, which it seems like now that the evidence is in has been a totally useless government program. They haven't committed any crime. There's been an average of four arrests a year. But it's relatively benign. People get jobs, no one really is harmed by it, and maybe there's a little bit of public safety. So it's more or less- it's wasteful. It's irresponsible use of taxpayer money, but it's not harming anyone. Prison is very different. It actually is- most people think that it is responsible maybe for 10 to 20% of reducing crime in the United States. There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them, and we need to start kind of changing direction. There are signs that's happening, and there needs to be changes at every level of the system. We need better indigent defense, we need fairer trials, we need a shift in our approach to addiction, toward thinking about it as a medical problem entwined with, crime and poverty problem rather than as a solely criminal justice issue. We need to think about better ways to let more people out of prison, especially as they pass beyond their criminal prime.
GOTTSCHALK: People age out of crime. So that the most criminogenic years, as I tell my students, is often the late teens and the early 20s. So locking somebody up for 30-40 years for a crime that someone's done in their 20s doesn't socially, morally, financially make a whole lot of sense. What we also know is that someone who's committed a serious crime has been released, eight- usually eight years after they've been released, their profile, the likelihood that they will commit another crime is the same as someone who's never committed a crime before.
PETERSON: I think that we're at the precipice of another great shift in society, where you have a small group of people who say this prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis. Something needs to be done. You have a large swath of people who say, "Oh, they're just criminals. This is, we have to have prisons, right?" But I have faith in that small voice of people who believe in humanity becoming louder, and louder, and louder.
- The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
- The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
- Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."
- How Prison Sets Inmates Up for Failure | Shaka Senghor - Big Think ›
- The 13th Amendment: The unjust prison to profit pipeline - Big Think ›
- Should Philosophy Be Taught To Prisoners? - Big Think ›
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Since 1957, the world's space agencies have been polluting the space above us with countless pieces of junk, threatening our technological infrastructure and ability to venture deeper into space.
- Space debris is any human-made object that's currently orbiting Earth.
- When space debris collides with other space debris, it can create thousands more pieces of junk, a dangerous phenomenon known as the Kessler syndrome.
- Radical solutions are being proposed to fix the problem, some of which just might work. (See the video embedded toward the end of the article.)
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a human-made object into orbit for the first time. It marked the dawn of the Space Age. But when Sputnik 1's batteries died and the aluminum satellite began lifelessly orbiting the planet, it marked the end of another era: the billions of years during which space was pristine.
Today, the space above Earth is the world's "largest garbage dump," according to NASA. It's littered with 8,000 tons of human-made junk, called space debris, left by space agencies over the past six decades.
The U.S. now tracks more than 25,000 pieces of space junk. And that's only the debris that ground-based radar technologies can track. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network estimates there could be more than 170 million pieces of space debris currently orbiting Earth, with the majority being tiny fragments smaller than 1 mm.
Space debris: Trashing a planet
Space debris includes all human-made objects, big and small, that are orbiting Earth but no longer serve a useful function. A brief inventory of known space junk includes: a spatula, a glove, a mirror, a bag filled with astronaut tools, spent rocket stages, stray bolts, paint chips, defunct spacecraft, and about 3,000 dead satellites — all of which are orbiting Earth at speeds of roughly 18,000 m.p.h.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
Most space junk is floating in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within an altitude of about 100 to 1,200 miles. LEO is also where most of the world's 3,000 satellites operate, powering our telecommunications, GPS technologies, and military operations.
"Millions of pieces of orbital debris exist in low Earth orbit (LEO) — at least 26,000 the size of a softball or larger that could destroy a satellite on impact; over 500,000 the size of a marble big enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit," wrote NASA's Office of Inspector General Office of Audits.
If LEO becomes polluted with too much space junk, it could become treacherous for spacecraft, threatening not only our modern technological infrastructure, but also humanity's ability to venture into space at all.
An outsized problem
Space debris of any size poses grave threats to spacecraft. But tiny, untrackable micro-debris presents an especially dreadful problem: A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
Impacts with space debris are common. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA replaced an average of one to two shuttle windows per mission "due to hypervelocity impacts (HVIs) from space debris." To be sure, some space debris are natural micrometeoroids. But much of it is human-made, like the fragment that struck the starboard payload bay radiator of the STS-115 flight in 2006.
"The debris penetrated both walls of the honeycomb structure, and the shock wave from the penetration created a crack in the rear surface of the radiator 6.8 mm long," NASA wrote. "Scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray detection analysis of residual material around the hole and in the interior of the radiator shows that the impactor was a small fragment of circuit board material."
The European Space Agency notes that any fragment of space debris larger than a centimeter could shatter a spacecraft into pieces.
Impact chip on the ISSESA
To dodge space junk, the International Space Station (ISS) has to conduct "avoidance maneuvers" a couple times every year. In 2014, for example, flight controllers decided to raise the ISS's altitude by half a mile to avoid collision with part of an old European rocket in its orbital path.
NASA has strict guidelines for how it decides to perform these maneuvers.
"Debris avoidance maneuvers are planned when the probability of collision from a conjunction reaches limits set in the space shuttle and space station flight rules," NASA wrote. "If the probability of collision is greater than 1 in 100,000, a maneuver will be conducted if it will not result in significant impact to mission objectives. If it is greater than 1 in 10,000, a maneuver will be conducted unless it will result in additional risk to the crew."
These precautionary measures are becoming increasingly necessary. In 2020, the ISS had to move three times to avoid potential collisions. One of the latest close-calls came with such little warning that astronauts were instructed to take shelter in the Russian segment of the space station, in order to be closer to their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft, which serves as an escape pod in case of an emergency.
The Kessler syndrome
The hazards of space debris grow exponentially over time. That's because of a problem that NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler outlined in 1978. The so-called Kessler syndrome states that as space becomes increasingly packed with spacecraft and debris, collisions become more likely. And because each collision would create more debris, it could trigger a chain reaction of collisions — potentially to the point where near-Earth space becomes a shrapnel field through which safe travel is impossible.
A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
The Kessler syndrome may already be playing out. Perhaps it began with the first known case of a spacecraft being severely damaged by artificial space debris, which occurred in 1996 when the French spy satellite Cerise was struck by a piece of an old European Ariane rocket. The collision tore off a 13-foot segment of the satellite.
The next major space debris incident occurred in 2007 when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in which the nation destroyed one of its own weather satellites, triggering international criticism and creating more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, most of which was still in orbit ten years after the explosion.
Then, in 2009, an unexpected collision between communications satellites — the active Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 — produced at least 2,000 large fragments of space debris and as many as 200,000 smaller pieces, according to NASA. About half of all space debris currently orbiting Earth came from the Iridium-Cosmos collision and China's missile test.
There's more. Russia's BLITS satellite was spun out of its orbital path in 2013 after being struck by a piece of space debris suspected to have come from China's 2007 missile test; the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was struck by a tiny particle in 2016; and a window of the ISS was hit by a small fragment that same year.
As nations and private companies plan to send more satellites into orbit, collisions and impacts could soon become more common.
The promise and peril of satellite mega-constellations
Space organizations have recently begun launching satellites into low Earth orbit at an unprecedented pace. The goal is to create "mega-constellations" of satellites that provide high-quality internet access to virtually all parts of the planet.
Internet-providing satellites have existed for years, but they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. That's mainly because it can take a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the user due to the high altitudes at which many of these satellites float above us in geostationary orbit.
China and companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon aim to solve this problem by launching thousands of satellites into lower orbits in order to reduce signal latency, or the time it takes for the signal to travel to and from the satellite. But some space experts worry satellite mega-constellations could create more space debris.
"We face entirely new challenges as hundreds of satellites are launched every month now — more than we used to launch in a year," Thomas Schildknecht of the International Astronomical Union said at a European Space Agency conference in April. "The mega-constellations are producing huge risks of collisions. We need more stringent rules for traffic management in space and international mechanisms to ensure enforcement of the rules."
A 2017 study funded by the European Space Agency found that the deployment of satellite mega-constellations into low Earth orbit could increase the number of catastrophic collisions by 50 percent. Still, it remains unclear whether sending more satellites into space will necessarily cause more collisions.
SpaceX, for example, claims that Starlink satellites aren't at significant risk of collision because they're equipped with automated collision-avoidance propulsion systems. However, this system seemed to fail in 2019 when a Starlink satellite had a close call with a European science satellite named Aeolus. The company later said it had fixed the bug.
A batch of 60 Starlink test satellites stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket.SpaceX
Currently, there are no strict international rules governing the deployment and management of satellite mega-constellations. But there are some international efforts to curb space debris risks.
The most concerted effort is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a forum that comprises 13 of the world's space agencies, including those of the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan. The committee aims "to exchange information on space debris research activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options."
The IADC's Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines list three broad goals:
1. Preventing on-orbit break-ups
2. Removing spacecraft from the densely populated orbit regions when they reach the end of their mission
3. Limiting the objects released during normal operations
But even though the world's space agencies recognize the gravity of the space debris problem, they're reluctant to act because of an incentives-based dilemma.
Space debris: A classic tragedy of the commons
Space debris is everyone's problem, but no one entity is obligated to solve it. It's a tragedy of the commons — an economic scenario in which individuals with access to a shared and scarce resource (space) act in their own best interest (spend the least amount of money). Left unchecked, the shared resource is vulnerable to depletion or corruption.
For example, the U.S. by itself could develop a novel method for removing space debris, which, if successful, would benefit all organizations with assets in space. But the odds of this happening are slim because of a game-theoretical dilemma.
"[In space debris removal] each stakeholder has an incentive to delay its actions and wait for others to respond. This makes the space debris removal setting an interesting strategic dilemma. As all actors share the same environment, actions by one have a potential immediate and future impact on all others. This gives rise to a social dilemma in which the benefits of individual investment are shared by all while the costs are not. This encourages free-riders, who reap the benefits without paying the costs. However, if all involved parties reason this way, the resulting inaction may prove to be far worse for all involved. This is known in the game theory literature as the tragedy of the commons."
Similar to trying to curb climate change, there's no clear answer on how to best incentivize nations to mitigate space debris. (For what it's worth, the game theoretical model in the 2018 study found that a centralized solution — e.g., one where a single actor makes decisions on mitigating space debris, perhaps on behalf of a multinational coalition — is less costly than a decentralized solution.)
Although space organizations have been slow to act, many have been exploring ways to remove space junk from orbit and prevent new debris from forming.
Cleaning up space debris
Space organizations have proposed and experimented with many ways to remove debris from space. Although the techniques vary, most agree on strategy: get rid of the big stuff first.
That's because collisions involving large objects would create lots of new debris. So, removing big debris first would simultaneously clean up low Earth orbit and slow down the phenomenon of cascading collisions described by the Kessler syndrome.
To clean up low Earth orbit, space organizations have proposed using:
- Electrodynamic tethers: In 2017, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency attempted to remove space debris by outfitting a cargo ship with an electrodynamic tether — essentially a fishing net made of stainless steel and aluminium. The craft then tried to "catch" space debris with the aim of dragging it into lower orbit, where it would eventually crash to Earth. The experiment failed.
- Ultra-thin nets: NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has funded research for a project that would deploy extremely thin nets designed to wrap around space debris and drag them down to Earth's atmosphere.
- "Laser brooms": Since the 1990s, space researchers have proposed using ground-based lasers to strategically heat one side of a piece of space debris, which would change its orbit so that it re-enters Earth's atmosphere sooner. Because the laser systems would be based on Earth, this strategy could prove to be relatively affordable.
- Drag sails: As a relatively passive way to accelerate the de-orbit of space junk, NASA and other space organizations have been exploring the viability of attaching sails to space junk that would help guide debris back to Earth. These sails could either be packed within new satellites, to be deployed once the satellites are no longer useful, or attached to existing space junk.
Illustration of Brane Craft Phase II, which would use thin nets to capture space debris.Siegfried Janson via NASA
But perhaps one of the most promising solutions for space debris is the ESA-funded ClearSpace-1 mission. Set to launch in 2025, ClearSpace-1 intends to be the first mission that successfully removes space debris from orbit. The goal is to launch a satellite into orbit and rendezvous with the upper stage of Europe's Vega launcher, which was left in space after a 2013 flight.
ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arm to capture space debrisClearSpace-1
Once the satellite meets up with the debris, it will try to capture the junk with a robotic arm and then perform a controlled atmospheric reentry. The task will be challenging, in part because space junk tumbles as it flies above Earth, meaning the satellite will have to match its movements in order to safely capture it.
Freethink recently spoke to the ClearSpace-1 team to get a better understanding of the mission and its challenges.
Catching the Most Dangerous Thing in Space Freethink via youtube.com
But not all space debris removal strategies center on technology. A 2020 paper published in PNAS argued that imposing taxes on each satellite in orbit would be the most effective way to clean up space. Called "orbital use fees," the plan would charge space organizations an annual fee of roughly $235,000 per each satellite that's in orbit. The fee would, in theory, incentivize nations and companies to declutter space over time.
The main hurdle of orbital-use fees is getting all of the world's space organizations to agree to such a plan. If they do, it could help eliminate the tragedy of the commons aspect of space debris and potentially quadruple the value of the space industry by 2040.
"The costly buildup of debris and satellites in low-Earth orbit is fundamentally a problem of incentives — satellite operators currently lack the incentives to factor into their launch decisions the collision risks their satellites impose on other operators," the researchers wrote. "Our analysis suggests that correcting these incentives, via an OUF, could have substantial economic benefits to the satellite industry, and failing to do so could have substantial and escalating economic costs."
No matter the solution, cleaning up space debris will be a complex and expensive challenge that requires a coordinated, international effort. If the global community wants to maintain modern technological infrastructure and venture deeper into space, conducting business as usual isn't an option.
"Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water," Jan Wörner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, said in a statement. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."
It uses radio waves to pinpoint items, even when they're hidden from view.
"Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception," says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib's team is pushing the technology a step further. "We're trying to give robots superhuman perception," he says.
The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view. The advance could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit.
The research will be presented in May at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The paper's lead author is Tara Boroushaki, a research assistant in the Signal Kinetics Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her MIT co-authors include Adib, who is the director of the Signal Kinetics Group; and Alberto Rodriguez, the Class of 1957 Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Other co-authors include Junshan Leng, a research engineer at Harvard University, and Ian Clester, a PhD student at Georgia Tech.Play video
As e-commerce continues to grow, warehouse work is still usually the domain of humans, not robots, despite sometimes-dangerous working conditions. That's in part because robots struggle to locate and grasp objects in such a crowded environment. "Perception and picking are two roadblocks in the industry today," says Rodriguez. Using optical vision alone, robots can't perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf — visible light waves, of course, don't pass through walls.
But radio waves can.
For decades, radio frequency (RF) identification has been used to track everything from library books to pets. RF identification systems have two main components: a reader and a tag. The tag is a tiny computer chip that gets attached to — or, in the case of pets, implanted in — the item to be tracked. The reader then emits an RF signal, which gets modulated by the tag and reflected back to the reader.
The reflected signal provides information about the location and identity of the tagged item. The technology has gained popularity in retail supply chains — Japan aims to use RF tracking for nearly all retail purchases in a matter of years. The researchers realized this profusion of RF could be a boon for robots, giving them another mode of perception.
"RF is such a different sensing modality than vision," says Rodriguez. "It would be a mistake not to explore what RF can do."
RF Grasp uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they're fully blocked from the camera's view. It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot's wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot's control algorithm. So, the robot is constantly collecting both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings. Integrating these two data streams into the robot's decision making was one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced.
"The robot has to decide, at each point in time, which of these streams is more important to think about," says Boroushaki. "It's not just eye-hand coordination, it's RF-eye-hand coordination. So, the problem gets very complicated."
The robot initiates the seek-and-pluck process by pinging the target object's RF tag for a sense of its whereabouts. "It starts by using RF to focus the attention of vision," says Adib. "Then you use vision to navigate fine maneuvers." The sequence is akin to hearing a siren from behind, then turning to look and get a clearer picture of the siren's source.
With its two complementary senses, RF Grasp zeroes in on the target object. As it gets closer and even starts manipulating the item, vision, which provides much finer detail than RF, dominates the robot's decision making.
RF Grasp proved its efficiency in a battery of tests. Compared to a similar robot equipped with only a camera, RF Grasp was able to pinpoint and grab its target object with about half as much total movement. Plus, RF Grasp displayed the unique ability to "declutter" its environment — removing packing materials and other obstacles in its way in order to access the target. Rodriguez says this demonstrates RF Grasp's "unfair advantage" over robots without penetrative RF sensing. "It has this guidance that other systems simply don't have."
RF Grasp could one day perform fulfilment in packed e-commerce warehouses. Its RF sensing could even instantly verify an item's identity without the need to manipulate the item, expose its barcode, then scan it. "RF has the potential to improve some of those limitations in industry, especially in perception and localization," says Rodriguez.
Adib also envisions potential home applications for the robot, like locating the right Allen wrench to assemble your Ikea chair. "Or you could imagine the robot finding lost items. It's like a super-Roomba that goes and retrieves my keys, wherever the heck I put them."
The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NTT DATA, Toppan, Toppan Forms, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).
A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.
- In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
- For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
- Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Vanishingly rare, but it exists: a patch of Minnesota forest untouched by the logger's axe.Credit: Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
The trees here tower a hundred feet above the forest floor — a ceiling as high as in prehistory and vanishingly rare today. That's because no logger's axe has ever touched these woods.
Pillars of the green cathedral
As you walk among the giant pillars of this green cathedral, you might think you're among the redwood trees of California. But those are 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away. No, these are the red and white pines of the "Lost Forty" in Minnesota. This is the largest single surviving patch of old-growth forest in the state and a fair stretch beyond. And it's all thanks to a surveying error.
Despite its name, the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is actually 144 acres (0.58 km2) in total. Still, it's an easily overlooked part of the Chippewa National Forest, which sprawls across 666,000 acres (2,700 km2) of north-central Minnesota. And that – being easily overlooked – is kind of this area's superpower.
In the 1820s, when European-Americans arrived in what is now Minnesota, they found about 20 million acres (80,000 km2) of prairie and 30 million acres (120,000 km2) of forest. Two centuries on, both ecosystems largely have been depleted. Fewer than 100,000 acres (400 km2) of natural prairie remain, and fewer than 18 million acres (73,000 km2) of forest.
And today's woods are different. They're not just younger; the original pine stands have been harvested and largely replaced with aspen and birch.
To the moon and back
White pine especially was in heavy demand during the lumbering boom that had Minnesota in its grip by the 1840s — a boom driven by an insatiable demand for building materials and supercharged by the steam that powered the saws and the rails that transported the goods to market.
The two decades flanking the turn of the 20th century were the golden age of lumbering in Minnesota. At any given time, 20,000 lumberjacks were at work in the woods, a further 20,000 in the sawmills, and another 20,000 in other lumber-related industries.
Production peaked in the year 1900, with over 2.3 billion board-feet (5.4 million m3) of lumber harvested from the state's forests. That was enough to build 600,000 two-story houses or a boardwalk nine feet (2.7 m) wide, circling Earth along the equator. From then on, yields declined, albeit slightly at first. By 1910, however, the first lumber operations started packing up and moving on to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
Minnesota's era of Big Timber symbolically came to an end with the closure of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1929. At that time, a century's worth of lumbering in Minnesota had produced 68 billion board-feet (160 million m3) of pine — enough to fill a line of boxcars all the way to the moon and halfway back again.
Now spool back a few decades. It's 1882, and the Public Land Survey is measuring, mapping, and quantifying the wilderness of northern Minnesota — and its as yet unharvested north woods. Setting out from the small settlement of Grand Rapids, Josias Redgate King leads a three-man survey team 40 miles north, into the backwoods.
Mapping error becomes cartographic fact
Their job, specifically, is to chart the area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. And they mess up. Perhaps it's the lousy November weather, the desolate swampy terrain, or both. But they make a serious mistake: their survey stretches Coddington Lake half a mile further northwest than it actually exists. As happens surprisingly often with mapping mistakes, the error becomes cartographic fact, undisputed for decades.
The area is marked on all maps as being under water and is therefore excluded from the considerations of logging companies. Only in 1960 is the area re-surveyed and the error corrected. But by then, as we have seen, Big Timber has moved on from the Gopher State.
Map of the "Lost Forty" SNA (top right). Bordering it on the south is the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Incidentally, Josias R. King was more than the mismapper of Coddington Lake. He has another, and rather better, claim to fame. When the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was the first state to offer volunteers to fight for the Union. At Fort Snelling, Mr. King rushed to the front of a line of men waiting to sign up.
So it was said, with some justification, that he was the first volunteer for the Union in all of the country. During the war, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. After, he returned to his civilian job, surveying. Because of his credentials as the Union's first volunteer, he was asked to pose for the face of the bronze soldier on the Civil War monument which was unveiled at St. Paul's Summit Park in 1903.
The loggers' loss is nature's gain
But back to the Lost Forty. The loggers' loss — hence the name — is actually nature's gain. The SNA's crowning glory, literally, is nearly 32 acres of designated old-growth red pine and white pine forest, in two stands, partially extending into the Chippewa National Forest proper. (In fact, much of the mismapped area seems to fall within the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area adjacent to the Lost Forty.) Old-growth forests represent less than 2 percent — and designated old-growth forests less than 0.25 percent — of all of Minnesota's forests.
The oldest pine trees in the Lost Forty are between 300 and 400 years old, close to their maximum natural life span, which is up to 500 years. Similar pines in other parts of the National Forest are harvested at between 80 and 150 years for pulp and lumber. As a result, the pines in the Lost Forty are not only higher than most of the surrounding woods but also bigger with a diameter of between 22 and 48 inches (55 to 122 cm). One of the biggest has a circumference of 115 inches (2.9 m).
With their craggy bark, massive trunks, and dizzying height, these trees look like the ancient beings they are. And they exist in a cluster the size of which is unique for the Midwest. There's nothing lost about these trees; in fact, it's rather the reverse. Perhaps the area should more precisely be called the "Last Forty."
At 52 feet, only half as high as an old-growth white pine: Josias R. King's likeness atop the Soldier's Monument in Summit Park, St. Paul.Credit: Library of Congress
Get a good look at the Lost Forty in this video of the local hiking trail.
Strange Maps #1084
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Is working from home the ultimate liberation or the first step toward an even unhappier "new normal"?
- The Great Resignation is an idea proposed by Professor Anthony Klotz that predicts a large number of people leaving their jobs after the COVID pandemic ends and life returns to "normal."
- French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that by establishing what is and is not "normal," we are exerting a kind of power by making people behave a certain way.
- If working from home becomes the new normal, we must be careful that it doesn't give way to a new lifestyle that we hate even more than the office.
You wake up, you put on your work clothes, and you go to the office. You sit behind a desk, or in some designated space, and you work until the clock says it's over. This is what life is like for the vast majority of people. That is, until COVID came along. Then, everything changed.
Recently, an interesting idea has emerged called the "Great Resignation." This is a phenomenon that Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University has predicted will happen when people are asked, or told, to return to their offices. Klotz argues that, when we're all forced back into the old reality of the commute, a nine-to-five job, and cubicle life, there will be a "Great Resignation" among the workforce.
The argument is that in times of uncertainty and insecurity — like during a global pandemic — people behave conservatively. They'll stay put. But once things "normalize" again, we ought to expect employees to head for the exits.
But why? What has changed? Why has working from home made us so dissatisfied with our previously normal lives? Other than the comfort and convenience of working from home, one explanation might involve the concept of "normalization," a topic that fascinated French philosopher Michel Foucault.
The power of normal people
Foucault argued that we often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to be normal. We must dress the same way as everyone else. We must talk about the same things. We must work just like everyone else works. It's hugely important that things are normal. But, behind all of this, is a power dynamic that many of us are simply unaware of — and unconsciously unhappy about.
Someone, somewhere, must define what is "normal." It is then for the rest of us to bend over backward to fit into this narrow mold. To be powerful, then, is to say, "Do this, otherwise everyone will call you weird." Power is to hold the hoops everyone else must jump through. It's what Foucault describes as "normalizing power."
COVID was a wake-up call to the abnormality of modern work
Let's apply Focault's normalization concept to the modern workplace. Accepted wisdom had it that the best — and really, the only way — to work was in an office, usually downtown, far away from where we live. We were told this is where collaboration and creativity occur. Largely unchallenged, this "normal" functioned for decades, and we all obeyed.
We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work. We had to travel in clogged and joyless commutes. We had to eat ready-packaged lunches behind our too-small desks. We had to sit through meetings in "good posture" ergonomic chairs that wouldn't be out of place in the Spanish Inquisition. Then we had to travel back home in yet another clogged and joyless commute. And we did this day after day after day.
Then COVID came along and revealed just how artificial, unnecessary, and abnormal it all is. It's as if someone ripped a blindfold off of society. We have laptops, wi-fi, and 5G (at least when people aren't burning the towers down). Many of us were just as productive — if not more so — than during the "normal" pre-COVID era. We don't need to be in an office. We don't need to waste countless hours of our lives sitting in traffic.
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.
Even better, people got to spend more time with their families, enjoy long and restful breaks, and have space to pursue their hobbies. In short, people like not going to an office. And, as Klotz argues, when companies see this dissatisfaction — this Great Resignation — they're going to ask some revolutionary questions, like, "Do you want to come back full time? Work remotely? In-office three days a week? Four days? One day?"
The silver lining to the COVID pandemic is that it has made us re-examine what "normal" is.
Beware the new normal
Of course, the idea of a nine-to-five office job was not established by some moustache-twirling villain just to satisfy his sadistic whims. It came about because people thought that was the most effective and productive way to operate.
People do need direct human contact, and it's often easier and more productive to speak to a colleague next to you or walk across an office to ask for some help. Remote-working software like Zoom is indeed convenient, but can a company honestly say that it's as efficient as working in an office?
What's more, there's a particularly pernicious sting in what Foucault argued. It's something that ought to slow any would-be Great Resignation. This is the idea that there likely will always be some kind of normal.
While COVID has revealed the office for the normalized power play that it is, what's to say what the next "normal" will be? Let's say that working from home becomes the new normal. Will we be expected to attend Zoom meetings at any hour of the day or answer text messages at midnight? Might cameras be used to monitor our every movement? Might software check that we're working at the right pace and in the right way?
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.