U.S. 'Decades Behind' on Space Debris Threat, Official Says
This computer-generated image shows objects (white dots) currently being tracked in low Earth orbit, which is the most concentrated area for orbital debris.
Credit: NASA

The amount of junk floating in space is getting out of hand and the United States must step up its effort to control orbital trash, experts are saying.

The chief of U.S. Strategic Command said Wednesday that America needs better tools to monitor the orbital debris that's up there and plan to avoid collisions with valuable satellites.

"We are decades behind where we should be, in my view," said Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton in a speech at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Chilton called for more personnel and more sensors and equipment to study and combat the threat.

There are about 800 satellites in orbit now, and more than 20,000 pieces of debris in total, including bits of dead satellites and spent rockets, as well as more eccentric items like loose gloves and tools that slipped away from astronauts on spacewalks. And it's only likely to get worse as more satellites are launched into the increasingly crowded orbital corridors of space.

"Space situational awareness is no different than the situational awareness that we demand in any other domain," Chilton said. "And we do not provide that in an adequate fashion to my component commander in charge of space operations for the United States of America."

Just today NASA announced that astronauts onboard the station may have to board their Russian Soyuz spacecraft lifeboats Friday evening as a safety precaution in case they must evacuate because of a space junk impact. A small piece of debris appears poised to fly within 1,640 feet (500 meters) of the orbiting laboratory Friday night at 10:48 EST (0348 Saturday GMT).

Though an actual impact is unlikely, the agency says, astronauts must be prepared when any debris comes too close for comfort.

Crowded skies

Scientists agree. A recent study calculated that "close encounters" between satellites and debris in orbit will rise by 50 percent in the next 10 years, and by 250 percent by 2059, to more than 50,000 a week, according to Reuters.

"The time to act is now, before the situation gets too difficult to control," study leader Hugh Lewis of the University of Southampton told Reuters. "The number of objects in orbit is going to go up, and there will be impacts from that."

The seriousness of the situation was made apparent earlier this year when two communications satellites accidentally slammed into each other, creating two huge new clouds of shrapnel floating in orbit. China also created a good chunk of debris in 2007 when it purposefully destroyed one of its orbiting satellites in an anti-satellite test.

Rising costs

Indeed, many satellite operators are noticing the problem. The commercial imaging satellite company GeoEye has had to maneuver some of its spacecraft several times to avoid colliding with space junk, according to SPACE.com partner Space News. The company was forced to move its 10-year-old Ikonos satellite seven times to evade debris.

These maneuvers are time-consuming and costly, requiring extra fuel and expert personnel to plot a safe course through space. And using up a satellite's precious fuel resources to avoid collisions shortens its useful lifespan.

Space junk is also a critical concern for human space exploration, where not just money but lives are on the line. NASA scrupulously monitors the field for any objects that might pose a risk to the International Space Station and shuttle crews.