How space debris threatens modern life
Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United Kingdom
Publishing organisation: Financial Times
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-06-08
Authors: Sam Learner, Peggy Hollinger, Sam Joiner, Caroline Nevitt, Ian Bott
The visual components of the story were created by members of the FT’s visual storytelling team, an interdisciplinary group of journalists combining data, design, coding and reporting skills. The team focus on projects where visual elements play an essential role in communicating the story, working on everything from investigations to explainers across the spectrum of news and features.
On this story, we worked in collaboration with Peggy Holinger, an International Business Editor at the FT, who has covered the commoditisation of space extensively.
The story outlined the looming threat of space debris in low-Earth orbit and the consequences of not addressing or mitigating the problem. We built the story as a 3D, scrolling explainer, constructing a number of scenes in orbit to explain important concepts that would be difficult to articulate through text or static charts alone.
The project was produced in collaboration with Peggy Hollinger, International Business Editor at the FT, who has covered the commoditisation of space extensively. The reporting involved conversations with officials from ESA and NASA, as well as various other researchers, experts, and astronauts.
The article was a hit with readers, with roughly a quarter reading the entire piece. The article was also published to coincide with the FT Investing In Space conference and used to frame discussions about how we can best mitigate against the growing issue of space debris.
The piece was also widely shared on social media and repackaged into one of the FT’s best performing Instagram reels of the year. The combination of in-depth reporting and 3D visuals helped us take the FT’s reporting — and the complex world of space — to a younger audience.
The project is built within a React frame, using a scrollytelling component developed by our team. The main visuals use the ThreeJS/React-Three-Fiber libraries to manipulate and navigate around complex 3D models.
Some of these models were constructed by us, while others were sourced from third-parties and modified in Blender. Aligning the events and camera for each section to work across devices involved a lot of work, as did navigating performance concerns.
We had to make concessions on detail and accuracy to ensure that the page could load in a reasonable amount of time and run relatively smoothly across a range of mobile devices. We also had to consider tradeoffs between literal and conceptual accuracy, a challenge magnified by the physical scale of many of the concepts.
We outlined the project in Figma and wireframed out each “scene” in the story, determining which concepts benefitted from complex 3D scenes and which were better-served by short text sections or static charts. In one particularly complex section, we determined that explaining the impact of various anti-satellite missile tests would work best as some kind of chart, but would benefit from incorporating the scale of the 3D scene, so we constructed a dynamic chart in 3D space.
For the views of all satellites and tracked debris, we used real positional data from www.space-track.org to calculate real point-in-time positions based on orbit ascensions, inclinations and periods.
The lighting and colour palette were of particular importance against a dark background, as was the positioning and styling of text cards. But to address accessibility concerns, we offered readers who struggle with dark text on light backgrounds an alternative reading experience via a toggle on the landing page.
Context about the project:
Accumulation of space debris in low-Earth orbit is a considerable threat to our future livelihoods, but it is an issue that we have the time to mitigate or solve. One researcher we spoke to equated it to “climate change in the early 20th century”.
One challenge we faced in the piece was conveying the importance of an issue that is, literally, very far away and explaining that we have come to rely on this area of space for much more than space travel.
We tried to communicate some of the ways that satellites in low-Earth orbit impact our lives through a mini “tour” of satellites at the beginning of the story. Should more collisions, minor or catastrophic, occur and debris continue to accumulate, we risk creating an environment in which satellites are unable to effectively operate and the services we have come to rely on them for — navigation, communication, climate modeling — become difficult or impossible to maintain.
Additionally, while the current volume of active satellites and debris represents a concern, plans by SpaceX and others to put tens of thousands of new satellites into orbit pose an even greater challenge.
NASA has raised concerns about the volume and capabilities of these satellites, but Musk has brushed them off, stating that he believes there is room in low-Earth orbit for “tens of billions” of satellites to operate (NASA and many experts disagree).
We devoted a long section at the end of the piece to potential solutions, but many of these rely on regulations or restrictions that no single entity has the power to enforce. Ultimately, operators such as SpaceX (or Amazon’s Project Kuiper) will largely be able to do as they please until enforceable and consistent regulations are in place.
Space debris is an issue many consider distant or unimportant, but a failure to take action could have disastrous consequences for life on Earth. We believe that through providing a visually-compelling explanation of the threat it poses we can correct these misconceptions.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
We hope that this story serves as a compelling example of incorporating 3D models and visualisations in a way that aids understanding, rather than distracts. For the right kind of project, breaking outside of the axes and working with a truly blank canvas can make for a more compelling or precise explanation of a concept or complex topic (if time allows!).
While our project pushed up against some performance limits, we were also surprised by how much we were able to get to work reasonably well across browsers and devices. The speed of even the slowest mobile devices get better every year and can handle increasingly complex formats. It is an exciting time for journalism, and we hope this story serves as inspiration for those who want to produce cutting edge visual stories in the digital age.