Space traffic congestion needs money, technology

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The dramatic collision of U.S. and Russian satellites is the latest in a series of orbital events that highlight an urgent need for better monitoring of the growing traffic in space.

Tuesday’s crash will increase calls for additional Pentagon spending to track space debris and satellites, U.S. space experts said. It also may give new impetus to a drive to set international standards for companies and governments operating in space that may include equipping new satellites with sensors or mandatory propulsion systems so they can be moved to ease traffic congestion.

China’s anti-satellite test in January 2007 sparked concerns about the U.S. ability to quickly determine if any problems were caused by natural phenomenon, technical malfunctions, debris strikes, or even enemy attacks.

Iran’s launch of its first satellite earlier this month was a reminder of the growing number of space-faring nations which are adding to the traffic.

U.S. and European officials this week called for expanded efforts to monitor objects in space. Better information and technology might have helped to avert the satellite crash, which created at least 500 to 600 new bits of debris that could jeopardize other spacecraft in the future, they said.

“It emphasizes the need for expanded safety and navigational situational awareness, as well as the potential benefit of establishing some kind of international standards,” said one senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named.

U.S. defense spending is under increasing pressure, but lawmakers are more apt to back preventative spending now that a major collision -- once considered unlikely -- has occurred, said one congressional aide.


The crash of a U.S. communications satellite and a defunct Russian military satellite was a wake-up call that government action was needed to “clean” up increasingly congested orbits, said Vladimir Agapov, a senior Russian scientist.

It also “clearly demonstrated the inability of the current surveillance systems” to accurately predict close encounters quickly enough to avert a collision, said Agapov. He works with the International Space Observation Network (ISON), a nongovernmental group that uses a worldwide network of 18 scientific optical facilities to track objects in space.

U.S. officials and Iridium, owner of the U.S. satellite that crashed, remained tight-lipped about whether they knew that there was a possibility of Tuesday’s crash. But one U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said the collision had come as a surprise, noting that the U.S. government simply lacked the resources to track every object in space.

Bo Andersen, director of the Norwegian space agency, said the accident demonstrated why Europe needs to collect its own independent space traffic data rather than relying mainly on U.S. information.

The 19-nation European Space Agency agreed in November to spend some 50 million euros researching an alternative system for tracking space debris.

The United States spends billions to develop and launch new satellites each year, including secret projects for military or intelligence operations. Much of the U.S. economy is increasingly dependent on satellites and any mishap or disruption can affect a range of services.

But funding for monitoring and surveillance has been limited to a mere fraction of overall spending. That worries some military officials who say the stakes are too high to risk more collisions.

Some critics also question the reliability of U.S. data, citing one recent case in which reports about the location of a commercial satellite were off by thousands of kilometers.


The U.S. government’s own concerns were exacerbated by the recent failure of two classified satellites. One was a small research satellite later destroyed by the U.S. government, and the other was a missile warning satellite, Northrop Grumman Corp’s DSP 23, which failed in mid-September.

Both cases showed the need for better “intelligence about what we’ve got up there,” said one U.S. official.

The United States has remained reluctant to share orbital data about its satellites, prompting some observers to warn that incomplete orbital data increase the risk of collisions.

The United States recently moved two smaller satellites built by Lockheed Martin Corp to inspect the defunct DSP 23, and the use of such “inspector” satellites could be expanded.

U.S. officials are also examining other technologies, including one loosely modeled on the sensors and cameras installed in cars and trucks that warn of impending crashes. The technology could be developed quickly but would add to the cost of already-expensive weapons systems.

Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the Russian satellite lacked a propulsion system that would have allowed the Russians to move it out of low-earth orbit as it neared the end of its life.

Hundreds of the 900 or so active satellites on orbit today also lacked a system that would allow them to be move out of harm’s way, McDowell said. Future satellites should be required to have the ability to be moved, as well as fuel reserves and possibly even a second, emergency system, he said.

Nations might also consider requiring operators to move satellites out of crowded orbits once their work was done, he said. “With thousands of satellites up there and orbits getting crowded, you’ve got to be able to get out of the way.”

The Obama administration has already signaled a greater interest in coordinated global efforts, vowing to restore U.S. leadership on space and seek a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.

It also promised to look at threats to U.S. satellites, contingency plans to keep information flowing from them, and what steps are needed to protect spacecraft against attack.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher and Jim Wolf; Editing by Richard Chang); +1 202 354 5807; Reuters Messaging: