The Politics of Garbage in Outer Space

Fifty years into what has become known as the Space Age, the condition of space operations has changed dramatically. Today more than 50 nations own satellites and commercial operators own even more. There are now nearly 1,000 active satellites orbiting the planet, carrying out critical roles in telecommunications, navigation, banking, science, and other civilian and military operations.

Despite the obvious importance of satellite operations the space above Earth has come to resemble what space security expert Laura Grego calls the Wild West. Increasing numbers of satellites are entering the region yet there are few restrictions on their behavior, increasing the risk of accidents and the possibility of misunderstanding that could lead to conflicts on the ground.

Some recent event drive home how the current chaotic conditions are contributing to the danger. For example, In 2007 China intentionally destroyed one of it aging weather satellites with an anti-satelllite (ASAT) weapon, adding more than 100,000 pieces of space debris to the already huge and dangerous amount threatening objects in space. Although China, among other countries, has called for discussing a legal framework for space conduct, so far the US has been unwilling to join them. In the absence of any law, the Chinese ASAT action was technically legal.

A year after the Chinese ASAT attack on its own satellite, the US used a sea-level missile defense interceptor to destroy one of its own failed satellites, USA 193. This incident showed how missile defense systems could also be used as ASATs Restrictions on missile defense systems which were ended when the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001. Fortunately, USA 193 was at a low altitude, so that most of the debris created fell out of orbit within a few days.

Although space agencies around the world have been advocating procedures to minimize increases in space debris, the Chinese ASAT attack illustrate how unsuccessful this has been. Information presented at the European Air and Space Conference held last year in Manchester, UK, stresses the point. As reported in New Scientist a “burgeoning blizzard of space debris is going to have a major impact on the future economics of space flight.” Specifically, the number of pieces of space debris has risen by 40 percent in the past four years alone.

Some of the junk polluting space is large enough to do catastrophic damage when it collides. the list includes defunct satellites, discarded rockets, even nuclear-rocket cores. In one typical collision, an Iridium commercial satellite weighing more than 1,200 pounds ran into a nonfunctioning Russian satellite weighing nearly a ton, the impact producing two massive debris clouds. In a second collision, French spy satellite Cerise was sent tumbling when the boom that stabilizes it was vaporized in a collision with a ten-year-old chunk of an Ariane rocket. The boom kept the satellite stable, so in its absence Cerise, which has moved out of its orbit, is now functioning like a ship without a rudder.

The US Space Command tracks objects larger than 10 centimeters across, but much smaller objects can do extreme damage. Because relative speeds are so high, a collision with even a small piece of debris could incpatate or destroy a satellite or space vehicle. And small pieces are abundant. Hundreds of thousands of small spheres of liquid metal coolant have leaked from nuclear reator cores. Paint chips, known to cause damage, are also abundant.

When the space shuttle Columbia touched down at the Kennedy Space Center, none of the crew realized how close they had come to disaster. During its mission, the door of the shuttle’s bay was hit by a projectile that made a crater almost 2 centimeters across and 6 millimeters deep. At the bottom of the crater lay a lump of fused metals including silver, lead, and tin. NASA investigators concluded that Columbia was hit by a piece of electronic circuit board. The fragment almost certainly came from a satellite or rocket that had itself been damaged. Had the cargo doors not been partially closed, the fragment would have hit oxygen tanks in the shuttle hold, causing enormous damage to the vehicle and perhaps threatening the safety of crew members.

These chaotic conditions in the space above Earth are a clear threat to the many important and peaceful uses of satellites in that region. Because the US possesses more satellites than any other nation it has the most to lose from deployment of weapons that can destroy satellites and create more dangerous debris. Conversely, it is the country that could benefit most from a comprehensive multilateral space security plan. This would be a win-win situation as other other countries achieve access to space without fear of missile attack and with reduction of costly accidents.

The US hasn’t taken the wise course that would both benefit it and other nations. Instead its policy in the past decade has focused on securing space by unilateral and military means. The Bush administration had proposed space-based missile defense research and development that would, for the first time, place dedicated weapons in orbit. Fortunately, Congress repeatedly refused to fund this proposal. And although the US has certainly not fostered space cooperation with the international community in general, it has taken an especially strong stance against China, blocking Chinese access to all US space technology.

The Obama administration seems to understand that space policy during the past decade, like foreign policy in general, has made the US more and more unpopular among other nations, not to mention being contrary to its own best interests. The president will re-shape space policy, as far as the Congress will let him.

There are some immediate opportunities for a change in direction. The administration is in the process of rewriting the National Space Policy, which guides US space activities across all sectors; that is, civil, commercial, government, and military. And a Space Posture Review. to be completed by the end of this year, will establish priorities for the national security uses of space.

One of those priorities should be a pledge not to station weapons in space. Russia made such a pledge in 2004 and is currently the only nation to have done so. If the US followed suit it would be a strong inducement to get other space powers to follow.

China might be one of them. President Obama seems to understand the importance of China in achieving space security, and he has worked toward that goal. In a joint statement issued with President Hu Jintao in November, 2009, President Obama said “The two countries have common interests in promoting the peaceful uses of outer space and agree to take steps to enhance security in outer space.”

Of course this still leaves the threat of collisions with space debris. But once the weapons threat has been eliminated and cooperation among space-faring nations has been established, that problem can be addressed and reduced, although not completely solved.