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Shouting “Duck!” is not enough when it comes to protecting critical national space assets and the lives of astronauts who regularly face tens of thousands of pieces of unforgiving, high-velocity space debris — some as small as nuts and bolts, others as large as whole sections of abandoned spacecraft — during missions above the Earth.
The U.S. Air Force Space Command tracks more than 18,000 pieces of debris traveling in low Earth orbit at warp speeds in excess of 17,000 miles per hour (27,200 kilometers per hour). And there are estimates of more than 600,000 smaller pieces or particles measuring 1 centimeter or larger that are too small to be seen by today’s sensors but large enough to jeopardize spacewalking astronauts, spacecraft and orbiting telescopes.
A few months ago, crew aboard the docked Space Shuttle Discovery and the international space station hastened to undertake emergency maneuvers to avoid a small piece of debris that put their lives and craft in danger. More recently, NASA’s safety chief expressed concern that space junk was one of the chief perils for the Space Shuttle Atlantis and its crew during their mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
As the number of objects in space grows, risk to U.S. systems and our ability to operate in space increases. Space technology is a critical infrastructure that needs to be safeguarded through ample funding for space protection and situational awareness programs, better data sharing with our international allies and stronger government-industry partnerships on safety.
Our dependence on space systems for meteorological data, global positioning, navigation and vital reconnaissance capabilities is growing. Space systems provide modern business communications, remote sensing, and digital television and music for millions of consumers. Space system industry sales in 2008 topped $33 billion, bolstering thousands of high-wage, middle class jobs.
Because we do not yet have the ability to clean up space — though a number of U.S. aerospace companies are investing in technologies to do just that — the growing number of major debris fields presents a real impediment to the safety of future missions.
For example, in January 2007 China intentionally destroyed an aging weather satellite in an anti-satellite rocket test, creating a massive debris field that will orbit Earth well into the future. This past February, an operational commercial U.S. satellite and a retired Russian satellite collided. Both were destroyed, scattering considerable debris.
With a limited budget for space situational awareness, the Defense Department is forced to limit tracking of space objects to those that could interfere with humans in space or with military satellites. Tracking of commercial assets gets a lower priority. To its credit, the Defense Department, along with the National Reconnaissance Office, recently created a Space Protection Program that supports interagency collaboration on space-threat assessments and collaboration on space protection strategies. It is an important step forward for the military and intelligence communities. Although we are beginning to make great advances in improving our situational awareness for aircraft operating in the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system, it is now time to improve that level of service for our assets in space.
Given our reliance on military, intelligence and commercial space systems, the United States needs to provide robust funding to protect our space assets. This investment should not only maintain current capabilities, but also advance modernization programs to harden satellites from attack, establish contingency plans to ensure redundancy of critical space capabilities, provide improved space situational awareness and adequately fund initiatives like operationally responsive space that seek to develop space systems that can be rapidly deployed.
With more and more systems and explorers going into space each year, it is imperative that we increase the reliability of tracking and mitigating space waste. We cannot just keep ducking.
Marion C. Blakey is president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association.
Article appeared in June 15, 2009 edition of Space News.