Stronger International Cooperation Needed To Address Growing Threat of “Space Junk”

Sputnik 1 first streaked across the virgin heavens a half-century ago ushering in the Space Age. Since then the number of manmade objects circling the globe has swelled into the hundreds of thousands. Space-based systems such as Global Positioning System (GPS), telecommunications, and weather forecasting have become so woven into daily life that they are taken for granted.

But those systems increasingly are threatened by the discarded and broken pieces of these space programs, which can cause them physical harm, speakers said at a 7 December forum organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

The increasingly crowded skies make it essential for nations to further strengthen and expand international cooperation and governance in order to assure the safety of these essential systems, and of astronauts on the International Space Station, the experts said.

“Historically, we think of the oceans as a common where national actors have no choice but to take into account the actions of others,” said Pierce Corden, a visiting scholar at the AAAS Center. “Space is preeminently a common, a global common right up there over our heads, and the heads of every nation.

“So it is important to consider how the United States and other states that have access to space programs that promote civil and security purposes can get along and cooperate in ways that go beyond a zero-sum game to strengthen international and national security.”

Pierce Corden [Photo by Bob Roehr]

Pierce Corden
[Photo by Bob Roehr]

At least 10 countries have space launch capability and “more than 60 entities operate more than a thousand satellites,” said Victoria Samson, director of the Washington, D.C., office of The Secure World Foundation, which focuses on the sustainable use of outer space.

Trackable space junk—at least 10 centimeters in diameter, about the size of a softball—tops 21,000 pieces, she said. There are an estimated “hundreds of thousands of pieces between one and 10 centimeters, too small to track but large enough to pack a punch and do serious, possibly catastrophic damage” to satellites and the International Space Station.

Sometimes there are prior signals that a satellite is going to malfunction or fail, but at other times it can come as a surprise. Samson is concerned that in an atmosphere of existing political tensions, loss of satellite function might lead one nation to think their satellite had been the victim of foul play “and ratchet up hostilities accordingly” against the assumed perpetrator.

“That is why having an international approach and cooperation in space is really important,” she said. “It allows us to establish the groundwork for cooperation, so that when these situations arise, we have some way of dealing with it.”

The risk is heightened now because the cycle of solar activity is at its peak and can unexpectedly and adversely affect space-based systems and communications. The radiation can also affect the earth’s magnetic field and increase upper atmospheric drag on low-orbiting satellites, causing their orbit to decay more quickly.

A photo of Victoria Samson

Victoria Samson
[Photo by Bob Roehr]

Two incidents catalyzed a growing concern for space junk and the need to address it in a more comprehensive manner. In 2007, the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old weather satellite, creating over 3000 pieces of trackable debris and an estimated 150,000 pieces that were too small to track. Samson said. “They will stay at this altitude [about 800 km] for decades if not the better part of the century.”

The second incident involved an active U.S. satellite (Iridium 33) and an inactive Russian satellite (Kosmos-2251) that collided over Siberia in 2009, creating about 2000 pieces of trackable debris and additional smaller pieces.

Another potentially destabilizing element is anti-satellite weapons, Samson said. They threaten to undermine space-based security capacity in intelligence gathering, communications, and GPS-dependent weaponry.

Testing and using anti-satellite weapons also would dramatically increase the amount of debris in orbit. Samson believes these risks have helped to shape a strategic philosophy that eschews further testing of such weapons, in much the same way as the United States and the Soviet Union decided it was to their benefit to limit testing of nuclear weapons.

A series of four treaties signed in the 1960s and early 1970s created the legal framework for international obligations in space. Samson called ongoing deliberations of the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) “very promising for establishing the groundwork for cooperation.”

However, India, Brazil, and other emerging economies with the potential for creating or expanding a presence in space are wary that nations with established space programs might try to use international agreements to lock in the status quo to the detriment of new players.

Samson discussed the potential for countries like the U.S. to exercise “soft power” in strengthening international ties with others through cooperation in space. “The United States is not the only game in town,” she said, noting that China also is promoting these activities. “It helps to increase China’s power internationally. It brings money into the Chinese space industry. It also allows them to test new technologies, and it gives them political connections.”

The United States has contracted with Russia to ferry personnel to the International Space Station for about a decade, which helps strengthen cooperation between the two nations. While China also has the heavy-lift capacity to put people into space, it has much less of a track record and Samson doubts the United States would use its services.

Samson believes U.S. cooperation in space has been hobbled by security-related export controls. Some technologies simply cannot be extended to certain other countries and private companies and even where allowed, the red tape adds time, money, and uncertainty to the undertaking. And if a launch vehicle carries multiple payloads and one is a classified project, the entire mission operates under the more restrictive protocols.

The National Space Policy of the United States of America, released in June 2010, “put a heavy emphasis on responsible space behavior,” Samson said. It emphasizes use of space for the benefit of all, through international engagement and cooperation. Military and security agencies subsequently updated their own strategies and guidance within this framework.

The U.S. Departments of Defense and State proposed loosening some restrictions on cooperation earlier this year. “But it is extremely sensitive politically,” according to Samson. Nonetheless, she believes “the space domain has changed and we must evolve with it.”

Bob Roehr

2 January 2013