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Experts: Active Removal Key To Countering Space Junk Threat

Computer-generated graphic of objects being tracked in low Earth orbit, approximately 95% of which are orbital debris. Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office graphic

BRUSSELS — The growing threat of orbital debris eventually will shut down the global space industry unless government agencies field a technology to remove the biggest pieces of garbage from low Earth orbit, experts from government, academia and industry said here Oct. 30.

Even the adoption by every spacefaring nation of practices designed to mitigate the formation of new debris will not be enough to assure the long-term sustainability of space activity, manned and unmanned, they said.

Unless a government-sponsored effort is made to take down the biggest pieces of debris, the risks in launching astronauts and most satellites will force a cessation of most, and maybe all, space operations for an extended period of time.

But despite this consensus, the experts from the United States, Canada and Europe said there are no plans on either side of the Atlantic to develop an active debris-removal system that could capture — by a net, tentacles or harpoon — the larger debris pieces that present the biggest threats to the usability of space.

“There is a paradox between the urgency of the issue and the slowness of actions,” one official said. “No one wants to pay for it, financially or politically.”

The one-day conference on orbital debris removal and in-orbit satellite servicing was organized by the Secure World Foundation, a U.S. think tank; and by the French International Relations Institute, or IFRI.

The meeting follows a similar conference in June organized in Washington by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on the prospects for in-orbit servicing of satellites. DARPA and NASA are both making still-modest investments in programs designed to stimulate industrial development of a satellite-servicing capability.

Speakers at the conference included representatives from the U.S. government; the German, British, Swiss and European space agencies; the 27-nation European Union; and the space industry, as well as experts in space law.

The two organizers asked that no names be attached to any specific statements. What follows are key points made during the conference.

Current United Nations space law gives spacefaring nations ownership of space property even if the object in question is dead in orbit and is obviously space junk that threatens other objects in nearby orbits. As a consequence, any nation spending hundreds of millions of dollars to remove from orbit a satellite or rocket upper stage before it explodes or collides with another object, creating thousands of new pieces of debris, would need to notify the object’s owner before acting.

Some experts said the law may require that the owner of the space junk give its permission before any debris-removal effort is undertaken.

Further complicating things are technology-export regulations in many nations that make it difficult to rendezvous with these nations’ satellites without permission, even if the goal is only to send the satellite or rocket upper stage into the atmosphere to be destroyed.

“You can get lots of legal opinion on how complicated it all is, but really what this will take is an executive fiat,” one official attending the meeting said, referring to a head-of-government-level decision, preferably with other nations, to order full speed ahead on a debris-removal effort.

Some officials said a government effort first requires that the technical choices — what kind of machine will be built to do the job — be settled. But others said that at this point, the technology is almost beside the point. The political will by one nation to start moving would resolve the technological issues, they said.

The United States and Europe both have objects that are on the top-50 list of dangerous pieces of large debris in low Earth orbit that are tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network of mainly ground-based sensors.

Europe’s 8,000-kilogram Envisat environment-monitoring satellite, which suddenly ceased functioning in April, is Europe’s principal contribution to a list that many governments still appear reluctant to talk about.

The United States and Europe continue to discuss a European code of conduct for space affairs, but this code is struggling for the support of less-developed nations that fear it is somehow against their interests. The U.S. government has sent mixed signals about the code as well but has agreed to continue working with Europe to craft a text that could be brought to the United Nations around 2013 — six years after it was first proposed.

The code says nothing about debris removal, and none of its proposals is binding.

 

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