Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Problem of Space Junk

As anyone who deals with Space policy knows, we have a growing problem in low earth orbit (home to the International Space Station and most commercial satellites) with space debris.  The problem could become potentially catastrophic if Space were ever to be a battle ground in a future Armed Conflict.  Given that the U.S. military relies so heavily on Space for communication, intelligence and positioning (essential to most smart bombs), this is a significant possibility. Bloomberg has a very interesting article on the problem:
The clutter in low-earth orbit has grown rapidly over the past decade. In January 2007, the Chinese government destroyed an aged weather satellite in a missile test, creating what was estimated to be 2,500 pieces of new debris. That was followed by the February 2009 collision of a defunct 1,900-pound Russian Cosmos satellite with a 1,200-pound Iridium Communications Inc. satellite 490 miles above Siberia, generating even more orbital waste.

“Both of those events greatly increased the amount of debris in the near-Earth space environment, thus pushing the threat posed by orbital debris even further toward what was described more than 15 years ago as ‘on the verge of becoming significant,’” the National Research Council wrote in a 2011 report.

Another potential threat lies with the European Space Agency’s Envisat earth-observation satellite, an eight-ton, 30-foot-long behemoth that ceased responding in April 2012. Envisat orbits at an altitude of 480 miles in a place where it could become a source of significant debris should it be struck. In its current state, the satellite will orbit for about 150 years before it degrades and falls into the atmosphere.
As the Bloomberg article explains, the Air Force is playing a critical role in monitoring Space debris and alerting satellite operators to dangerous debris:
Yet even though there’s plenty of junk to track, the U.S. has been generous about sharing data with its neighbors on the size of the stuff flying by and on where it is. Historically, the U.S. Department of Defense has been the most authoritative tracker in deploying technology to monitor objects that could threaten satellites, both military and civilian, and NASA missions. The U.S. military now tracks some 20,000 orbital objects via radar and maintains a public database that satellite operators and others can consult.

The Air Force also alerts operators to potential collisions and has contracted with Lockheed Martin Corp. to construct a $1 billion next-generation “Space Fence” radar system capable of tracking as many as 200,000 objects. The new fence “will be able to track objects as small as a peanut M&M in low-earth orbit,” a Lockheed project manager said in November, when the Air Force and Army opened a new Air Force Space Fence Operations Center in Huntsville, Ala. The project is expected to become operational late next year.
 What is the solution?  As the article explains, governments are beginning to operate on "best practices" designed to prevent new debris, such as planned safe disposal of satellites at the end of their life, and launch practices that prevent new debris.  Read the entire article here.

I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development corporation, which has some excellent resources on the space debris problem at their Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies.  Space geeks can geek out!

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