Satellite crashes, asteroid impacts and space weather pose big risks, US lawmakers say

An artist's depiction of satellites orbiting Earth.
An artist's depiction of satellites orbiting Earth. (Image credit: NASA)

One of the most pressing problems when it comes to keeping our planet safe from space threats is data, which sounds so simple to address. 

It's not. That's why the U.S. Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation spent a 90-minute hearing on Wednesday (Feb. 12) asking experts what the priorities should be when it comes to threats like space weather, rogue asteroids and space debris.

"It sounds like a movie script," joked chair Roger Wicker, R-Miss., in the livestreamed hearing from Washington, D.C., concerning the topic his group considered. "But it is reality," he added, "and where we are."

Related: 5 reasons to care about asteroids

There are, of course, many ways of collecting data about all of these threats. NASA has satellites in orbit, although many of them (such as the 24-year-old Solar and Heliospheric Observatory that watches flares from the sun) are aging and will need to be replaced soon. There are telescopes on the ground, although it's hard sometimes to find enough telescope time to monitor the skies. 

Then the data needs to be analyzed. Scientists rely on computer simulations and emerging forms of machine learning to predict what threats we should focus on first. Those models are only as good as the data that informs them, so more accurate data will produce better models for scientists and engineers to make decisions. 

The future of data collection in the U.S. will also require government departments and private industry to collaborate, which they are only just beginning to discuss. But once a model is established, it would "allow for a truly open exchange between commercial vendors, [U.S.] allies and others," Kevin O'Connell, director of the Department of Commerce's office of space commerce, told the committee. That department is a key player in this effort, due to its experience managing other emerging industries, such as the internet in the 1990s.

The hearing focused on three threats to Earthlings. One is the sun. While the sun keeps our planet habitable for life, from time to time it throws temper tantrums in the form of flares or bursts of particles known as coronal mass ejections. If those particles come toward Earth, they can fry satellites and affect the power grid. NASA and other agencies keep an eye on the sun using solar-monitoring satellites, and recent solar missions such as NASA's Parker Solar Probe and the Solar Orbiter. The latter is a collaboration between the European Space Agency and NASA, and will fly very close to the sun to gather even more information.

Another issue is space debris and "space situational awareness," meaning knowing where space junk is and whether it poses a threat to working satellites. Just two weeks ago, two defunct satellites passed within a few dozen feet of each other, and the threat is expected to worsen as OneWeb, SpaceX and other companies launch constellations of satellites that could number in the thousands.

The Department of Defense maintains a catalog of space objects, but smaller objects can escape notice and it ignores classified objects. And tracking objects is complicated because their orbits are pushed around by the sun's activities.

Lastly, there is the perennial problem of asteroids and other space rocks that periodically slam into Earth. Asteroids have been blamed for the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, and smaller objects caused damage in Siberia in 1908 and in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. NASA has a Planetary Defense Coordination Office that monitors the paths of potentially threatening objects with the help of telescopes around the world; if any danger is spotted, the office would coordinate with disaster relief agencies and other groups to help people get out of the way and cope with the aftermath. 

Monitoring each of these threats produces quite a lot of data, and scientists hope for more telescopes, satellites and other machines to produce more data. Managing and sharing all that information is key. But that, too, is complicated, since space is the domain of all countries on Earth and rules are still in their infancy, particularly for situations such as avoiding collisions between satellites. 

"Nothing is guaranteeing the protection of these things," said witness Moriba Jah, a space scientist and aerospace engineer at the University of Texas at Austin. To create the most comprehensive picture possible of satellites circling Earth, Jah led the creation of a crowdsourced, space-traffic-monitoring system that blends real-time data from governments, academia and industry.

And in terms of solutions, satellite collisions are the most straightforward of the three threats to tackle. Compare that to a test mission NASA is planning, called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), that will launch in 2021 and slam into the asteroid Didymos' moon. It will take years to perform the test and evaluate how well it worked, before we can create future planetary defense systems to nudge a rogue asteroid out of way.

So when Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for the science mission directorate, was asked what his agency would do in case of a threat, he said the response would focus on moving populations instead of moving the asteroid. "In many cases," he said, "the right answer to 'How do we react to that?' is in fact running, because depending on which angle [the asteroid approaches Earth], the idea is to get out of the way of harm — just like we evacuate our population with a hurricane."

Similarly, there is no known way to deflect a sudden solar storm headed toward Earth, so the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would focus on mitigating the effects on infrastructure for the affected populations, its representative told the committee.

"We alert the power grid [officials], in particular, give them as much notice as possible, and they take the action necessary to mitigate from the induced current" produced by particles hitting power lines, said William Murtagh, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center. 

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.  

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: