Orbital Debris Threatens Peaceful Use of Space, Group Tells U.N.

Dealing with space debris presents a thorny political issuethat must be addressed, according to an international foundation's brief to theUnited Nations.

In an address to the U.N.'s Committee on the Peaceful Usesof Outer Space, the Secure World Foundation ? a non-profit organizationcommitted to space sustainability ? emphasized the importance of developing alegal framework and protocol for cooperating to address this problem.

Yet tensions between countries about the best way to deal with spacejunk could make a solution difficult, experts say.

"In order to keep the ability to work in space, we needto reduce as much as possible the amount of debris that we put in orbit,"Secure World Foundation Executive Director Ray Williamson told SPACE.com. "Thereason for that is that as we go to much higher-than-Earth altitudes, thedebris tends to stay in space for many years. And if you go to 1,000 km [600miles], when you get to those altitudes, debris in space stays for centuries."

Messy place in space

A head-oncollision between an American communications satellite and a defunct Sovietspacecraft in 2009 woke up many to the seriousness of the orbital debrisproblem. Adding over a thousand pieces of trackable debris to orbit, the crashwas the first of its magnitude, and impressed upon the world the necessity ofcreating programs to reduce junk in space and keep track of existing debris toavoid further accidents, Williamson said.??

Currently, the build-up is worst at some of the most crowdedorbital areas, such as over Earth's poles and the equator.

Of the 21,000 objectsbigger than 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter now being tracked by the Department ofDefense's U.S. Space Surveillance Network., 1,000 are working satellites.Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands more objects exist that are toosmall to track.

Space collision tracking

Before the 2009 collision, the United States calculated possiblecollisions in orbit only for U.S. working satellites. Now the SpaceSurveillance Network attempts to monitor potential conjunctions among the wholeworld's satellites when possible because of its unique capacity to do so, and theissue's importance for space sustainability, Williamson said.

No restrictions exist for which countries can put satellitesinto orbit, but hairy issues arising from the process of removing debris make acollaborative legal framework a necessity, he said.?

"The U.S. wouldn't like it a bit if China were to takeout an old U.S. satellite and bring it back," Williamson said. "Andthey wouldn?t like it if we took one of theirs and brought it back. We need towork on protocol. This makes things very complicated."

In the long run, these legal and policy issues are moreimportant than today's technological challenges with removing thedebris, he added.

Codes of conduct that direct international response are alsoneeded for planetary defense against asteroids. But Williamson said the spacedebris issue is even more pressing.

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Contributing Writer

Zoe Macintosh is a science writer who covered human spaceflight, astronomy and science for Space.com in 2010. She also covered general science for Space.com's sister site Live Science. Zoe studied English literature and physics at Smith College, where she also wrote for the Smith Sophian. Her work has also appeared in the National Association of Science Writers website.