Washington attempts to prevent star wars over galactic garbage littering up space
America LetterThe US wants a terrestrial deal to avoid Earth’s orbit being filled with junk
Space. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Compromise. Its mission is for the US to agree an international code of conduct for activities in outer space and to prevent Earth’s atmosphere being cluttered with potentially hazardous space waste.
As the new US secretary of state, John Kerry, was surveying his terrestrial challenges on his tour of Europe this past week, a deputy assistant secretary at the state department was trying to reach a celestial goal by speaking at a conference in Japan on the topic of “space situational awareness” – specifically, to encourage countries to agree a plan not to clutter the orbital path around Earth with space junk.
Frank Rose told a seminar that space was “more congested now than ever before” and that the US was tracking tens of thousands of pieces of space debris 10cm or larger in various orbits around Earth.
Given that the minimum speed of an object in orbit is about 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph), a tiny piece of debris can be a serious hazard for spacecraft and astronauts aboard the International Space Station, he said. The station has had to manoeuvre numerous times in recent years to avoid colliding with these objects.
The state department wants more of what it calls TCBMs, an acronym that would not seem out of place on Star Trek. These are transparency and confidence-building measures by which governments can address problems in space and share information to reduce tensions between countries as they proceed with their ambitious designs on space exploration.
Rose is following on from comments made by Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, when she said last year that “the long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors”.
The state department wants countries to sign up to the code to “refrain from conducting any intentional damage to, or destruction of, a space object”.
The US is trying to prevent a repeat of both the 2009 accidental Iridium-Cosmos collision of two artificial satellites, one owned by US communications company Iridium and the other by the Russian space authority, and China’s anti-satellite missile test in 2007. In this incident the Chinese destroyed a weather satellite by sending an object into orbit to collide with it. These two incidents produced more than 4,500 pieces of space debris that will be orbiting Earth for hundreds of years.
The interest in protecting Earth from space debris has been rekindled by the asteroid about half the size of an American football field that exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia on February 15th. The meteoroid released a force of energy about 30 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and remarkably did not cause any fatalities.
This incident, along with the race between government space agencies and private enterprises to send a manned mission to Mars over the coming decades, makes international co-operation to ensure the low Earth orbit is unpolluted with space debris all the more pressing for the US. The heavy cost of space missions and the tight constraints on government purses mean, however, that countries are going it alone.
Last year the US pulled out of an agreement with the European Space Agency on the next major mission to Mars. Nasa, like other US government agencies, is suffering in the squeeze on spending.
The space agency’s budget for 2013, if a full-year budget is finally approved by Congress, has declined slightly to $17.7 billion (€13 billion), which includes the sum allocated by the government to the Mars project falling from $587 million to $361 million.
The automatic federal spending cuts that kicked in yesterday under the “sequestration” will shave $970 million off Nasa’s budget.
The gap left by government cutbacks in space programmes is being filled in part by private companies. Just this week Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, announced a project to send a couple in a “return fly-by” of Mars in 2018. The project is estimated to cost between $1 billion and $2 billion and Tito hopes to fund his Inspiration Mars mission by selling the television rights and data to Nasa.
The growth of private starship enterprises makes the case for an international code covering responsibility for space debris even more urgent to prevent a potentially dangerous junkyard building in the upper atmosphere.