Space Debris on the Rise as Satellite Launches Increase
By Yasmin Tadjdeh
As the number of satellites being launched into space has grown, so has the amount of dangerous orbital debris circling the globe, a new report found.
The amount of space junk has increased by 7.8 percent since 2010, according to the Space Security Index 2012, a report produced by the Secure World Foundation, a Colorado-based private organization that promotes space sustainability. Meanwhile, 2011 saw the largest deployment of new spacecraft in a decade.
“The total amount of human-created space debris in orbit continues to grow and is concentrated in the high value orbits where space assets are primarily located,” the report said. “In recent years awareness of the space debris problem has grown considerably, in part because various spacecraft have been hit by pieces of debris, intentional debris generating events have occurred, and satellites have collided with one another.”
On a positive note, the number of fragmentation events — when one object collides with another and creates debris, is on a downward trend — and is at its lowest numbers since 2002.
Space debris can come from rocket booster stages that are released and from pieces of hardware. Collisions often cause considerable space debris fragmentations. While some debris will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate, some will remain in orbit.
Space junk can cause serious problems for satellites and even for structures such as the international space station. Moving at speeds of up to 7.8 kilometers per second, even tiny pieces of space debris can destroy or damage satellites, the report said.
Over the years, high-profile fragmentation events have put these floating objects into the limelight.
In 2007, China courted controversy as it began an anti-satellite weapon test that caused a large amount of space debris. In 2008, the United States destroyed its USA-193 satellite that briefly sent more space debris into orbit. In 2009, there was an accidental collision between a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite and an active Iridium communications satellite, which also caused a significant increase of space debris.
During the 1990s, the amount of space debris being tracked was on a downward trend, but fragmentation events have created a cluttered environment for satellites, which could threaten multi-million-dollar spacecraft.
The Defense Department has been one of most active organizations tracking these dangerous objects. Using the Space Surveillance Network, it has catalogued more than 17,000 objects that are larger than 10 centimeters in diameter, according to the report. But there are more than 300,000 objects with a diameter larger than one centimeter, and millions more that are smaller than that, experts estimate.
The military, civilian and commercial space industry is thriving, putting an even greater emphasis on protecting assets in orbit.
Since the Cold War, the United States has led the military space field. The United States accounts for about half of all military satellites, the report said. However, U.S. military innovation and success in space is also cause for concern, the report said, because it increases the “strategic value” of targeting military satellites in times of conflict.
Outside of the United States, Russia has the second largest fleet of military satellites, which were, for the most part, developed during the Cold War. While Russia has a large number of spacecraft, most of them are old and in need of major upgrades. The Russian government has subsequently begun to funnel more money into these endeavors.
As for China, while most of the country’s satellites are civilian or commercial, many of them are capable of being used for military endeavors, the report found. In 2011, China had more launches than any other year, demonstrating the increased importance it has put on the space industry. However, because of the government's lack of transparency, the international community may find cause for concern, the report found.
“Continued limited transparency of China’s space capabilities and intentions is a concern for space security. For example, China continues to classify satellites believed to be of dedicated military or dual use as ‘scientific,’ increasing the likelihood of misinterpretation and mistrust and negatively impacting space security,” the report said.
While the U.S. military has led space innovation for years, commercially the industry is thriving as well. Private-sector space revenues have been on the uptick since the mid-1990s, and have estimated annual revenues at more than $200 billion, the report found. With the retirement of the space shuttle, more innovations will likely come from the commercial sector.
In order to protect investments in both the military and commercial sectors, there is a greater need for robust international space laws, the report said.
“International space law can improve space security by restricting activities that infringe upon the ability of actors to access and use space safely and sustainably, or by limiting space-based threats to national assets in space or on Earth,” the report said. The recent creation of the a Group of Governmental Experts on Space by the UN General Assembly, which will begin deliberations this year, is looked at as a positive step.