Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett on Nov. 16 called on industry to help the Air Force and U.S. Space Force with cleaning up space debris to help avoid collisions in space.
“For a long time, the United States Air Force has been tracking space debris, but there’s a lot more to be done,” Barrett told the ASCEND 2020 forum sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). “What we’d like to see in the future is not just tracking, but cleaning up that litter–figuring ways how do you consolidate, how do you get that hazard–17,500 miles per hour rocketing through space, it is a great hazard.”
“Just think about the GPS system alone,” she said. “Consider how much we depend upon the GPS system. It’ s free and accessible to everyone globally, and it’s operated by just eight to 10 people on a shift. So a total of 40 people operate this extraordinary system upon which so much of our current economy depends. It’s broadly used. It’s transformative, but it’s fragile. So that space debris is really a danger to things like our GPS systems. We’ve got to replace those. We’ve got to minimize their vulnerability, and we have to have, as the Space Force will do, space capabilities that will deter others from doing damage to that system upon which so much depends.”
Barrett said that processes and doctrines to outline rules of the road in space and aid space traffic management are underway.
According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO), there are 23,000 large pieces of debris greater than 10 cm tracked by the Space Force’s U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
“Prior to 2007, the principal source of debris was from explosions of launch vehicle upper stages and spacecraft,” per ODPO. “The intentional destruction of the Fengyun-1C weather satellite by China in 2007 and the accidental collision of the American communications satellite, Iridium-33, and the retired Russian spacecraft, Cosmos-2251, in 2009 greatly increased the number of large debris in orbit and now represent one-third of all cataloged orbital debris.”
U.S. Space Command said in September that the Combined Force Space Component Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. “monitors approximately 3,200 active satellites for close approaches with approximately 24,000 pieces of space debris, and issues an average of 15 high-interest warnings for active near-earth satellites, and ten high-interest warnings for active deep-space satellites, each day.”
Nations that damage satellites are ripe for legal challenge under the 1972 Liability Convention to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested recently (Defense Daily, Sept. 22).
In the only claim under the Liability Convention, the Soviet Union paid Canada some $2 million after the U.S.S.R.’s nuclear-powered Kosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite crashed in western Canada and scattered radioactive debris on Jan. 24, 1978.
Bridentstine and Chief Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond signed a Sept. 21 memorandum of understanding on future research cooperation between NASA and Space Force that outlines the development of civil and military norms of behavior for space and a possible international code of conduct for space to build on the requirements of the OST, the Liability Convention, and the 1976 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
Companies are also looking at “active [space] debris removal,” a White House official said in September upon the release of Space Policy Directive-5 (SPD-5). “On orbit robotic operations are just continuing to increase.”
The U.S. Space Force and United Kingdom have been exploring cooperation under on a number of outer space issues, including the reduction of on-orbit space debris.
Last year, the U.K. became the first nation to join the U.S.-led Operation Olympic Defender, a coalition to deter “hostile” space actors, such as China, Russia, and Iran, and decrease the spread of on-orbit space debris.
On March 27, Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] Space Fence radar system achieved initial operational capability. Located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the solid-state S-band radar system can track small orbiting objects from LEO to GEO.
Operated by Detachment 4 of the 20th Space Control Squadron at the Space Fence Operations Center in Huntsville, Ala., Space Fence “provides significantly improved space surveillance capabilities to detect and track orbiting objects such as commercial and military satellites, depleted rocket boosters and space debris in low, medium, and geosynchronous Earth orbit regimes,” Space Force said. “Before Space Fence, the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) tracked more than 26,000 objects. With the initial operational capability and operational acceptance of Space Fence, the catalog size is expected to increase significantly over time.”