Assistant Secretary Frank A. Rose for Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance today reported that 6,000 metric tons of debris are orbiting the Earth.
At the Near Space Security Conference in London, Mr. Rose stated that much of his time at the State Department is focused on the national security aspects of international space cooperation, particularly working with traditional space-faring allies and partners, but also in exploring potential opportunities for cooperation with emerging space powers.
He highlighted that the U.S. State Department continues to work closely with its counterparts across the U.S. Government to implement principles and goals of the President’s 2010 National Space Policy and to preserve the long-term sustainability of the space environment.
“One issue that underlines the need for cooperation is the growing presence of debris in space, also referred to as “space junk.” There are now approximately 21,000 pieces of debris in various Earth orbits – in other words, about 6,000 metric tons of debris orbiting the Earth. Some debris or junk is simply “dead” satellites or spent booster upper stages still orbiting.” -Mr. Rose
He noted that in 1958 the United States launched Vanguard I – the fourth artificial satellite ever orbited – into Earth orbit. He said it is currently the oldest piece of junk still in orbit. He also cited that another type of debris results from accidents or mishaps, such as the 2009 Cosmos-Iridium collision, but also includes items that slipped the grasp of our astronauts including a glove, cameras, a wrench, pliers, a tool bag, and a toothbrush.
“Still another type of debris results from intentionally destructive events, such as China’s test in space of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 that intercepted its own weather satellite, thus generating long-lived debris that will not re-enter Earth’s atmosphere for over 100 years.” -Mr. Rose
He stressed that experts warn that the quantity and density of man-made debris significantly increases the odds of future dangerous and damaging collisions. The debris also poses a direct threat to the International Space Station.
“To address the growing problem of orbital debris, the United States has expanded its engagement within the United Nations and with other governments and non-governmental organizations.” -Mr. Rose
He emphasized that the U.S. government is continuing to lead the development and adoption of international standards to minimize debris, building upon the foundation of the U.N. Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. He said the United States is also actively participating in a multi-year study of “long-term sustainability” within the Scientific and Technical Committee of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS.
“This effort will provide a valuable opportunity for cooperation with established and emerging space actors and with the private sector to establish a set of “best practice” guidelines that will enhance space flight safety.” -Mr. Rose