Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Humans have always been good at creating garbage. Just look around and you will find trash, junk and debris everywhere you go: landfills, waterways, city parks, neighborhood streets, forests and highways. While these are all hotbeds of man-made waste, one place in particular is increasingly becoming a huge threat to humanity – and all you have to do is look up.
Space debris, or space junk, is a pressing problem for humanity both in space and on the ground. The problem is so relevant that a recent movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney has not only featured a devastating encounter in space but has also inspired politicians and government agencies to gather and discuss a real-world problem.
Space experts met Friday at a hearing held by the US House of Representatives to warn that space activities will become increasingly dangerous if rules are not developed to control the debris problem. Entitled “Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life Gravity,” the hearing gave experts a chance to voice their concerns over the dangers of human space travel and commercial satellites that earthlings rely on for TV, communication and GPS.
While the meeting had its intentions in solving the space debris crisis, an endless array of bureaucracy kept any real-world solutions from taking place. Tight budgets, patchy international agreements, and partisan divides on Capitol Hill were the main issues keeping a clear route from taking shape.
In the film “Gravity,” a barrage of space debris threaten the livelihood of three astronauts who are on a spacewalk to maintain the International Space Station. In the opening scenes Sandra Bullock’s and George Clooney’s characters try to avoid the oncoming onslaught of junk that is raining down on them, destroying the space station, their craft and killing all those aboard.
While the movie is a fictional account, the physics behind it are all too real. The trail of space junk that affected the characters and their equipment in “Gravity” can probably best be described as part of the phenomenon known as Kessler syndrome. When two objects collide in orbit, they create more debris. Some of the debris created from these collisions burns up in the Earth’s upper atmosphere or falls to Earth. But what doesn’t get eaten up by Earth continues to ride on orbit, potentially leading to more collisions, creating more debris and then creating more potential collisions, and so on and so forth; in space, this can be an indefinite routine.
NASA currently tracks about 23,000 objects in low-Earth orbit and as much as 500,000 pieces of junk drifting around space above at 17,000 mph, according to a report from Xinhuanet.
However, most of this junk is larger than a baseball; anything smaller is largely undetectable. These undetectable objects are the ones that could potentially pose the biggest threats, as there could be tens of millions of such-sized objects encircling the Earth.
Recent collisions in space have only pronounced the problem.
A collision between a commercial communications satellite with a Russian decommissioned military satellite in 2000 created more than 2,000 pieces of debris, adding to the mix. In 2007, China intentionally shot one of its own weather satellites out of orbit in an explosion that also created upwards of 150,000 pieces of space debris. Then in 2009, a collision between a private US satellite and a defunct Russian satellite – known as the Iridium-Kosmos collision – generated another 2,000 pieces of space debris.
“The 2009 Iridium-Kosmos collision was a watershed event,” George Zamka, a former astronaut and an administrator with the FAA, which currently has authority only over space launches and atmospheric re-entry, as cited by The Guardian. “The accident brought to light that more work needs to be done to ensure the safe separation of space objects.”
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
At the hearing, the FAA requested additional authority over commercial satellite operators, including the authority to order evasive maneuvers to avoid collisions. Currently, no US agency holds any such authority, and it remains unclear what agency could hold authority that may be applied worldwide.
More than 60 countries around the world now have a presence in space, with dozens of companies, educational and nonprofit organizations operating satellites above Earth – none having any universal oversight, reports The Guardian.
“As the barriers to access space are lowered, the number of actors is expected to increase, and our ability to carry out our missions will become progressively more difficult,” said Lieutenant General John W Raymond, commander of the Pentagon’s joint functional component command for space, as cited by The Guardian.
“We have whole economies based on space that are now in jeopardy because we are not cleaning up our trash,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, as cited by ABC News.
Current regulations designed to curb the spread of debris exist but are spread out over five agencies: NASA, FAA, FCC, Defense Department, and NOAA – although none of these agencies have any clear jurisdiction over the other. Most of the members at the hearing came to the agreement that one single entity was needed to supersede all five agencies, but singling one out may not be that easy.
“What isn’t quite clear is which agencies have or could have legitimate roles in space traffic management,” Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, noted, as cited by ABC News. “That is, the authority to tell a space operator to move a spacecraft should the potential for collision from debris or another spacecraft require it.”
The call to act will likely fall on the hands of Congress, which has been bitterly divided on issues as of late. Agreeing to agree on the expansion of a federal power to oversee, regulate and punish both government space programs and big businesses will likely not get the affirmative attention of conservatives in Congress.
Even if Congress can successfully appoint an agency, it may not be enough make a significant impact in international operations. With more than 60 countries with satellites in orbit, it will likely be impossible for the US to maintain an authoritative presence over all satellite operators worldwide.
AVOIDING THE INEVITABLE
Tracking space debris has largely been the job of the Defense Department, which maintains 21 global sensors, cataloging all debris and publishing partial information on its website space-track.org. The Pentagon also supplies debris-tracking information through a subscription service to 41 companies and five countries, said Lt. Gen. Raymond.
Avoidance maneuvers are now commonplace in space, with several collision aversions conducted for the space shuttle and the International Space Station over the past decade, according to NASA. But neither the Pentagon, nor the Defense Department, have the authority to order a private US company or a foreign company to change the orbit of a satellite. Yet, the debris remains and no practical technology has been brought forth that can dispose of such debris.
Zamka acknowledged that any decision to order evasive maneuvers would be costly and difficult in predicting the probability of a collision between two relatively small objects some 500 miles above Earth.
“The request to have the ability to have an operator be forced to move, that can be done in a number of ways,” said Zamka, as cited by ABC News. “Earlier is better, earlier interaction – perhaps agree with the operator as part of the licensing process what the critieria would be for which they’d move. And then probably best of all would be an industry-based consensus on what is the agreeable time to effect a move. Because all of these things involve probabilities, and a lot of expense for the operator, frankly.”
During the hearing, Zamka shared a dramatic personal account of dealing with space debris.
“In my previous two missions we flew upside down and backwards to protect our shuttle windows from orbital debris, and even doing that we had debris strikes and cracks on our windows,” noted Zamka, a retired former NASA astronaut. He described the objects as, “spent rocket bodies and debris traveling in different directions at speeds five to ten times that of a bullet, and carrying tremendous energy into a collision.”
Congress was in agreement that new technologies needed to be employed to clean up space lanes. But for now it is just talk. NASA has been leading the way in determining what measures would best work, but progress has so far been very limited and will likely meet tight budget restraints, keeping any real world solutions at bay for the foreseeable future.
NASA’s budget is the smallest compared to the overall government: roughly half a percent of total federal spending, according to ABC News. And even if NASA’s budget opened up and the technology was in place, it may still be difficult in gaining the cooperation of international operators in letting the US lead the way in space cleanup.
In the meantime, the possibilities for other dramatic space collisions – hopefully not on the level of the devastation encountered in the smash hit “Gravity” – are quite evident, noted Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Indiana.
“Fifty years from now we might not be able to fly in space at all… because we won’t able to get out of the way,” he said, as cited by The Guardian.