COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The United States is getting serious about space junk, according to Vice President Mike Pence.
In a speech today (April 16), Pence announced that the National Space Council will soon send President Donald Trump new recommendations to address the growing threat of space junk circling Earth.
"President Trump knows that a stable and orderly space environment is critical to the strength of our economy and resilience of our national security systems," Pence told a crowd of space and military officials here at the 34th Space Symposium. "And that's why the National Space Council has developed the first comprehensive Space Traffic Management Policy, which we will soon be sending to the president's desk for his approval." [7 Wild Ways to Clean Up Space Junk]
There are more than 1,500 active satellites in orbit today, along with tens of thousands of "dead" satellites and spacecraft fragments, Pence added. In fact, the U.S. military's Space Surveillance Network regularly tracks about 40,000 objects in space, including active satellites, defunct spacecraft and debris.
"And as commercial companies continue to send even more satellites into orbit, the volume of space traffic will only increase in the years ahead," Pence said.
There have been two major space-debris events in recent history. In 2007, China intentionally destroyed its Fengyun 1C weather satellite as part of an anti-satellite missile test, creating a debris cloud in orbit. And in 2009, a collision between an American Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian satellite spawned even more debris.
Pence mentioned the 2009 satellite collision in his speech, adding that the new Space Traffic Management Policy is aimed at safeguarding U.S. assets in space.
"This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense, so that our military leaders can focus on protecting and defending our assets in space," he said. [Worst Space Debris Events of All Time]
"The policy will also encourage the commercial space industry to partner and develop data-sharing systems, technical guidelines and safety standards to apply domestically, and be promoted internationally, that will help minimize debris, avoid satellite collisions during launch and while in orbit."
Pence's announcement comes on the heels of the April 1 crash of China's defunct Tiangong-1 space station and the April 2 launch of a novel space-junk-cleanup experiment called RemoveDebris, which will test several ways to clean up orbital debris. While unrelated to the announcement, the Tiangong-1 crash and RemoveDebris mission illustrate the growing importance of and interest in space debris mitigation.
The Space Traffic Management Policy, once signed by Trump, would follow several other major space initiatives by the Trump administration.
Last December, Trump signed the Space Policy Directive 1, directing NASA to return American astronauts to the moon based on recommendations by the National Space Council, which Pence chairs. Then, Pence and the National Space Council on Feb. 21 outlined more recommendations to streamline regulations for space launches to ease the red tape facing American commercial space companies.
In March, Trump announced that the U.S. may need a military "Space Force" for national security. The administration then unveiled a new National Space Policy geared toward national security and the development of "conducive" environments for commercial and international partnerships in space, according to SpaceNews.
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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.