US Unveils Efforts to Cope With Increasing Amount of Space Debris


The increasingly congested space environment is of growing concern, so the U.S. today unveiled efforts to cope with increasing amount of space debris.

In his remarks at AGI’s Japan Space Situational Awareness Seminar in Tokyo, Deputy Assistant Secretary Frank A. Rose discusses the topic of space situational awareness, or what is also known as SSA.

He focuses his remarks on why accurate SSA is necessary to monitor the growing amount of debris in space.

Space debris populations seen from outside geosynchronous orbit (GEO). Note the two primary debris fields, the ring of objects in GEO, and the cloud of objects in low earth orbit (LEO).

“As many of you are aware, the increasingly congested space environment is of growing concern.” – Mr. Rose

Every day as the amount of debris in space increases, the threat of a collision increases correspondingly, Mr. Rose underlined.

As a result, increasing the knowledge of where objects are in space through SSA is essential.

Space is more congested now than ever before

According to Mr. Rose, the U.S. is currently tracking tens of thousands of pieces of space debris 10 centimeters or larger in various Earth orbits.

He cites of these objects about 1,100 are active satellites and the rest are space debris, objects ranging from satellite parts, to spent rocket bodies to obsolete satellites.

In addition, other orbiting debris that slipped the grasp of our astronauts includes a glove, cameras, a wrench, pliers, a tool bag, and even a toothbrush.

Some of the debris in space was created accidentally through collisions, such as the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos collision, some was created through routine space launches and operations, while other debris was created through intentional acts such as the Chinese ASAT test in 2007, he said.

According to Mr. Rose, debris from China’s 2007 ASAT test and the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos collision increased the debris population by more than 4,500 objects 3,000 and 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris respectively.

“Moreover, the debris from these events will last for hundreds of years.” – Mr. Rose

The Dangers of the debris

According to Mr. Rose, the minimum speed of an object in orbit around the Earth is approximately 17,500 miles per hour.

He says at such speeds even a miniscule piece of debris presents a serious hazard for spacecraft and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Debris impacts on Mir’s solar panels degraded their performance. The damage is most noticeable on the panel on the right, which is facing the camera and has high contrast. The more extensive damage to the smaller panel below is due to impact with a Progress spacecraft.

In fact, in recent years, Mr. Rose points out that the International Space Station has opted to maneuver numerous times to avoid a potentially catastrophic collision with debris.

SSA essential to cope with growing space environment

According to Mr. Rose, the topic of SSA is particularly timely given the recent close approach of the near-Earth asteroid, 2012 DA14, earlier this month.

He says this asteroid, which was about half the size of an American football field, passed within 28,000 kilometers of the Earth’s surface on February 15.

“In fact, it was the closest-ever known approach by such a large object.” – Mr. Rose

He adds that due to its close proximity, US SSA capabilities were essential to ensure that there was no risk of a conjunction with satellites in geosynchronous orbits.

SSA Cooperation Helps to address threats of increasing space debris

According to Mr. Rose, space situational awareness is foundational to US efforts to understand what is going on in space and to cope with the increasing amount of space debris.

He says SSA enables US to characterize the space environment and to predict the location of objects orbiting the Earth.

“No one nation has the resources or geography necessary to precisely track every space object, and as a result, international cooperation on SSA is essential.” – Mr. Rose

He says the President’s 2010 National Space Policy implicitly recognizes this fact and thus directs then to collaborate with foreign partners, the private sector, and intergovernmental organizations to improve US space situational awareness specifically, to improve shared ability to rapidly detect, warn of, characterize, and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems.

He explains that having accurate information in a timely fashion is critical for a number of reasons.

First, accurate information is critical to NASA, US International Space Station partners, and all spacefaring nations, where human spaceflight safety is of the utmost importance.

In addition, Mr. Rose accurate information is critical for U.S. and allied security as well.

“And third, given the growing dependence we all have on space-derived information, it is critical to our global economy.” – Mr. Rose

How US enhances SSA capabilities

According to Mr. Rose, the United States is taking action in a variety of ways to implement the National Space Policy and to enhance our SSA capabilities, especially through international cooperation.

He says the United States continues to provide notifications to other governments and commercial satellite operators of potentially hazardous conjunctions between orbiting objects.

To do so, the United States works with space-faring entities to establish two-way information exchanges and facilitate rapid notifications of space hazards.

Mr. Rose adds that to this end, the United States is working with allies and friends on a country-by-country basis to develop processes and jointly develop a universal message format for more timely and tailored collision warning data.

US also working closely with the commercial space industry to determine the kinds of satellite data and other information that can be shared.

He emphasizes that working together at the operator level to share collision warning information will have the added benefit of improving spaceflight safety and communication among governmental and commercial operators, users, and decision-makers.

Across the United States Government, it is also supporting numerous multilateral and bilateral engagements in space situational awareness.

US Collaborating with other countries on security partnership in space

According to Mr. Rose, in April of 2012, Japan and the United States agreed to deepen our security partnership in space through various cooperative measures, such as the development of a framework for sharing space situational awareness services and information.

The United States also has ongoing discussions with Russia on measures to enhance safety for robotic space missions as well as for human spaceflight, Mr. Rose said.

The United States is also collaborating with its friends and allies in Europe as they continue developing their own SSA capabilities.

The State Department for one, in collaboration with Department of Defense, is currently engaged in technical exchanges with experts from the European Space Agency, the European Union, and individual ESA and EU Member States to ensure our existing and planned SSA systems contribute to a more comprehensive situational awareness picture to ensure the safety, sustainability, stability, and security of the space environment.

In addition, the Department of Defense has signed bilateral SSA partnership statements of principles with Canada, France, and Australia.

Looking ahead, the United States also sees opportunities for cooperation on SSA with other nations and nongovernmental space operators around the globe.

Reversing the trends

Mr. Rose says as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors.”

He says unless the world takes action to reverse these trends, it could have damaging consequences.

Given the increasing threat of space debris, Mr. Rose says it is essential that the world has robust situational awareness of the space environment in order to ensure stability in space as well as the sustainability of our space activities.

As a result, the United States is striving to improve its ability to monitor, track, and provide notifications regarding space objects.

International cooperation helps too

Mr. Rose underlines that the picture of the space environment is greatly enhanced through international cooperation.

Examples of this cooperation include sharing SSA information as well as pursuing initiatives such as the EU’s proposal for an International Code of Conduct and the COPUOS Agenda Item on Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities, he stated.

He says such cooperation with established and emerging members of the space-faring community and with the private sector will help to prevent future collisions and preserve the space environment for the benefit of all nations and future generations.

Space is becoming increasingly congested and contested?

Today’s space situation is even more pronounced than it was a decade ago, according to US.

The space is no longer an environment accessed nearly exclusively by two superpowers or a few countries. Barriers to entry are lower than ever. Many countries are enjoying access to and the benefits of space in unprecedented numbers.

The space now is the domain of a growing number of satellite operators; approximately 60 nations and government consortia operate satellites, as well as numerous commercial and academic satellite operators.

Paradoxically, while it is becoming increasingly easier to access as well as to benefit from space. However, decades of space activity have littered low Earth orbit with debris, and as the world’s spacefaring nations continue to increase activities in space, the chance for collision increases correspondingly.

The situation means the coutries need to think carefully through how all countries can all operate there safely and responsibly.

TheU.S. Department of Defense tracks roughly 22,000 objects in orbit, of which only 1,100 are active satellites. He added that while some pieces of debris are simply “dead” satellites or spent booster upper stages still orbiting, and others are the results of accidents or mishaps, such as the 2009 Cosmos-Iridium collision, some debris is the result of intentionally destructive events, such as China’s test in space of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007.

US emphasizes that ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment through measures such as providing prior notifications of launches of space launch vehicles, establishing “best practices guidelines,” and warning of risks of collisions between space objects are in the vital interest of the United States and the entire world community and enhance our mutual security interests.”

The Obama Administration is committed to ensuring that an International Code enhances national security and maintains the United States’ inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, a fundamental part of international law. The United States would only subscribe to such a Code of Conduct if it protects and enhances the national and economic security of the United States, our allies, and our friends. The Administration is committed to keeping the U.S. Congress informed as our consultations with the spacefaring community progress.

Mina Fabulous follows the news, especially what is going on in the US State Department. Mina turns State Department waffle into plain English. Mina Fabulous is the pen name of Carmen Avalino, the NewsBlaze production editor. When she isn’t preparing stories for NewsBlaze writers, she writes stories, but to separate her editing and writing identities, she uses the name given by her family and friends.