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As a researcher for international relations studying space law and politics, I realized what most people don’t fully appreciate: Dealing with space debris is as much a national security issue as it is a technical one.
To see the debris that orbits the earth merely as an obstacle in the path of human missions is naive. Since space activities are deeply rooted in geopolitics on Earth, the hidden challenge emerging from the rubble is the militarization of space technologies that are designed to clean up them.
To be clear, space debris carries significant risks; However, to understand these risks I should explain what it is and how it is formed. The term “space debris” refers to defunct man-made objects, remnants of activities that date back to the early days of the space age. Over time, this definition has expanded to include things big and small like discarded boosters, decommissioned satellites, leftover spacecraft parts, screwdrivers, tools, nuts and bolts, broken pieces, lost gloves, and even paint stains.
A computer generated image of objects in orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95 percent of the objects in this figure are orbital debris, which means that they are not functioning satellites. The points represent the current position of each element. The orbital debris points are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility, and are not scaled to Earth. The image provides a good visualization of where the largest orbital debris populations exist.
From the 23,000 pieces of debris in orbit larger than 5 to 10 centimeters that we can track and catalog to the hundreds of millions we cannot, there is no question that objects both large and small that whizzing around at deadly speed, the prospects for civil, commercial and military missions in space. You can single out what the movie “Gravity” got wrong, but what made it memorable was the feeling of devastation caused by an orbital cloud of debris that destroyed equipment and killed three astronauts on impact. Regardless of its size, space debris can be deadly to humans and machines alike.
The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that by the beginning of 2018 there had been around 500 break-ins, collisions, explosions or other fragmentation events that resulted in space debris. Some of these events are caused by accidents. NASA reported the first known collision of two objects in space in July 1996 when a European booster collided with a French spaceship. In this incident, a new piece of debris was created, which itself was immediately cataloged. But accidents can also have a major impact on the increase in the debris cloud. In 2009, a functioning US communications satellite, Iridium-33, collided with a non-functioning Russian one, Kosmos-2251, for the first time as the two flew over extreme northern Siberia. In this single crash, more than 2,300 pieces of debris were created.
Natural fragmentation versus deliberate destruction
Space debris can also be affected by breaking older spacecraft. In February 2015, a space probe of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP-F13) named USA 109, which had been launched 20 years earlier, exploded due to a battery failure. It could have contributed 100 pieces of debris tracked by military radars on Earth and possibly 50,000 shards larger than 1 millimeter that evaded tracking because they were too small. Because of the satellite’s original high altitude, all of these fragments will remain in orbit for decades, posing risks to other spacecraft. In November 2015, another decommissioned US weather satellite, NOAA-16, collapsed again due to a possible battery failure, adding 136 new objects to the cloud of debris.
It is noteworthy that debris can also fragment itself. In February 2018, a discarded tank splintered from the upper stages of a Ukrainian-Russian Zenit 3F missile.
The fuel tank of an Iridium satellite launched in 1997-1998 re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and crashed in a California orchard, where it was discovered in late October 2018.
(Kings County Sheriff’s Office)
Debris can also fall back to Earth, whether through natural orbital decay or controlled re-entry. Fortunately, most of this falling debris ends up in Earth’s oceans. But sometimes it doesn’t, and these rare events can become more dangerous in the years to come as the debris cloud grows in size and the projected fleet of small commercial satellites becomes a reality. Parts of the Zenit rocket debris are said to have recently crashed in Peru. One of the most recent of its kind happened in October 2018. The US military identified a fuel tank from a roughly ten-year-old Iridium satellite that crashed in a walnut garden in Hanford, California.
Then there are the highly publicized deliberate events that add to the cloud of debris. In 2007, China used a ground-based direct ascent missile to take down its own aging weather satellite, Fengyun-1C. This event created an estimated 3,400 pieces of debris that will be in place for several decades before deteriorating.
China’s actions have been widely viewed as an anti-satellite test (ASAT), a signal of the country’s growing military space capabilities. The ability to shoot down a satellite to gain a military advantage on Earth reveals the fundamental nature of the threat: those most dependent on space resources – namely, the United States with an estimated 46 percent of the 1,886 satellites currently operational – are also the most vulnerable to the deliberately generated space debris. There’s no doubt that the attacker will lose in such a scenario – but this collateral damage can be worth it when your more space-dependent rival delivers a more crippling blow.
Saudi officials inspect a crashed PAM-D module in January 2001.
Stealth “counter space race”
Government or commercial solutions to combat debris in orbit – whether lasers, nets, magnets, tethers, robotic arms, or revolving service satellites – have only fueled the prospect of a secret race for supremacy in space.
The same technology that traps or taps or pulls the debris away can do the same to a functioning spacecraft. Since no one can be certain of the intentions of such proposed “commercial” space debris disposal technologies, governments will struggle to stay ahead of their market competitors. It is important how and with what intention you deal with space debris with dual-use technologies, and all the more so in a time of changing world order. Both old and new space powers can easily hide their military intentions in legitimate concerns about and possibly commercial solutions to debris threats. And there are now a number of open reviews on space debris removal technologies that can serve as military programs, like lasers or fighters.
This amalgamation of the market and the military is not a conspiracy, but a reality. If you are a great power like the United States, heavily reliant on space resources in both economic and military terms, you are vulnerable to both orbital debris and the technologies proposed to clean it up. And both your allies and your rivals know this.
So we ended up in a space race that can’t be compared to your grandfather’s space race. In essence, this new race reflects the volatile geopolitics of today’s peer or near-peer competitors, and there is no getting around it in any domain. Just like on Earth, the largest space powers in the cosmos – the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India – have developed from pure space situational awareness to comprehensive combat space awareness. If things stay that way, random or deliberate events with orbital debris can destroy the peaceful prospects in space.
How do we then proceed so that space remains safe, sustainable and protected for all powers, large or small? No single nation – no matter how large it may be – can accomplish this task successfully on its own. The solutions cannot only be technological or military. For peaceful solutions to last, deterrence and diplomacy and public awareness must be proactively forged by space powers, leaders and thinkers.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Follow @ConversationUS on Twitter.