Space junk reaching "tipping point," report warns

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla,. Thu Sep 1, 2011 4:54pm EDT

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla,. (Reuters) - The amount of debris orbiting the Earth has reached "a tipping point" for collisions, which would in turn generate more of the debris that threatens astronauts and satellites, according to a U.S. study released on Thursday.

NASA needs a new strategic plan for mitigating the hazards posed by spent rocket bodies, discarded satellites and thousands of other pieces of junk flying around the planet at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, the National Research Council said in the study.

The council is one of the private, nonprofit U.S. national academies that provide expert advice on scientific problems.

Orbital debris poses a threat to the approximately 1,000 operational commercial, military and civilian satellites orbiting the Earth -- part of a global industry that generated $168 billion in revenues last year, Satellite Industry Association figures show.

The world's first space smashup occurred in 2009 when a working Iridium communications satellite and a non-operational Russian satellite collided 490 miles over Siberia, generating thousands of new pieces of orbital debris.

The crash followed China's destruction in 2007 of one of its defunct weather satellites as part of a widely condemned anti-satellite missile test.

The amount of orbital debris tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network jumped from 9,949 cataloged objects in December 2006 to 16,094 in July 2011, with nearly 20 percent of the objects stemming from the destruction of the Chinese FENGYUN 1-C satellite, the National Research Council said.

The surveillance network tracks objects approximately 10 centimeters in diameter and larger.

Some computer models show the amount of orbital debris "has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures," the research council said in a statement released Thursday as part its 182-page report.

"The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts," Donald Kessler, the former head of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office who chaired the study team, said in a statement.

In addition to more than 30 findings, the panel made two dozen recommendations for NASA to mitigate and improve the orbital debris environment, including collaborating with the State Department to develop the legal and regulatory framework for removing junk from space.

Current international legal principles, for example, ban nations from salvaging or otherwise collecting other nations' space objects.

"The problem of space debris is similar to a host of other environmental problems and public concerns characterized by possibly significant differences between the short- and long-run damage accruing to society," the report said.

It cited "damage related to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, storage of nuclear waste and long-lived pharmaceutical residue in underground aquifers. Each has small short-run effects but, if left unaddressed, will have much larger impacts on society in the future," it said.

The study, "Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs," was sponsored by NASA.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Todd Eastham)

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Comments (8)
isolate wrote:
The only way this situation will be reversed is if all space-faring nations work together to come up with a practical plan and agree to share costs based on the percentage of satellites they have in orbit, operating or inert. If each country tries to come up with a plan on its own, absolutely nothing will get done because each country will be waiting for the other to begin. Exactly the same reason that prevents global warming from being dealt with.

Sep 01, 2011 5:37pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Andvari wrote:
Littering in the U.S. is a crime that generally goes unpunished. It is a major source of pollution, yet we keep ignoring it. The fact that we are ignoring the problem in outer space is not surprising.

Human beings don’t want to be responsible for their actions. They want someone else to clean up their messes. Dozens of environmental problems are near their tipping points. It is going to be hell to pay….

Sep 01, 2011 5:42pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
candide08 wrote:
This has been a known problem for decades.

What makes ANYONE think that, suddenly, nations will cooperate and fix it?

Sep 02, 2011 9:22am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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