Why space debris cleanup might be a national security threat

Why space debris cleanup might be a national security threat
Space debris in Earth orbit creates a dangerous obstacle course for satellites and astronauts. Credit: Dotted Yeti / Shutterstock.com

As an international relations scholar who studies space law and policy, I have come to realize what most people do not fully appreciate: Dealing with space debris is as much a national security issue as it is a technical one.

Considering the circling the Earth as just an obstacle in the path of human missions is naive. As outer space activities are deeply rooted in the geopolitics down on Earth, the hidden challenge posed by the debris is the militarization of space technologies meant to clean it up.

To be clear, poses considerable risks; however, to understand those risks, I should explain what it is and how it is formed. The term "space debris" refers to defunct human-made objects, relics left over from activities dating back to the early days of the space age. Over time that definition has expanded to include big and small things like discarded boosters, retired satellites, leftover bits and pieces from spacecraft, screwdrivers, tools, nuts and bolts, shards, lost gloves, and even flecks of paint.

From the 23,000 pieces of debris in Earth orbit that are larger than 5-10 centimeters that we can track and catalog, to the hundreds of millions that we cannot, there is little question that both big and small objects whizzing around at lethal speeds endanger the prospects for civilian, commercial and military missions in outer space. You may pick apart what the movie "Gravity" got wrong, but what it got unforgettably right was the sense of devastation wrought by an orbital debris cloud that destroyed equipment and killed three astronauts on impact. No matter its size, space debris can be lethal to humans and machines alike.

As of early 2018, the European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that there have been about 500 break-ups, collisions, explosions or other fragmentation events to date that yielded space debris. Some of these events are caused by accidents. NASA reported the first-ever known collision between two objects in space in July 1996, when a European booster collided with a French spacecraft. That incident created one new piece of debris, which was itself promptly cataloged. Yet accidents can also have a big impact on increasing the debris cloud. In 2009, for the first time ever, a functioning U.S. communications satellite, Iridium-33, collided with a non-functioning Russian one, Cosmos-2251, as they both passed over extreme northern Siberia. This single crash generated more than 2,300 fragments of debris.

Why space debris cleanup might be a national security threat
A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris, i.e., not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. The image provides a good visualization of where the greatest orbital debris populations exist. Credit: NASA

Natural fragmentation versus deliberate destruction

Space debris may also be affected by the breakup of older spacecraft. In February 2015, a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP-F13) spacecraft, called USA 109, which had gone up 20 years earlier, blew up due to a battery malfunction. It may have contributed 100 debris pieces that were tracked by military radars on Earth, and possibly also 50,000 shards larger than 1 millimeter that defied tracking because they are too tiny. Because of the satellite's original high altitude, all those fragments will remain in orbit for decades, posing risks for other spacecraft. In November 2015, again due to a possible battery failure, another decommissioned U.S weather satellite, NOAA-16, crumbled adding 136 new objects to the debris cloud.

Notably, debris itself can also fragment. In February 2018, a discarded tank from the upper stages of a Ukrainian-Russian Zenit-3F rocket fragmented.

Debris can also fall back down on Earth, whether from natural orbital decay or controlled re-entry. Fortunately most such falling debris lands in the Earth's oceans. But sometimes it does not, and these rare events may become a bigger hazard in the years ahead as the size of the debris cloud grows, and as the projected fleet of commercial small satellites becomes a reality. Recently, parts of Zenit rocket debris are reported to have ended up crash-landing in Peru. One of the most recent such events just took place in October 2018. The U.S. military identified a fuel tank from a decade-or-so-old Iridium satellite that crashed in a walnut orchard in Hanford, California.

Then there are the highly publicized deliberate events that add to the . In 2007, China used a ground-based direct-ascent missile to take out its own aging weather satellite, the Fengyun-1C. This event created an estimated 3,400 pieces of debris that will be around for several decades before decaying.

China's actions were widely seen as an anti-satellite test (ASAT), a signal of the country's expanding military space capabilities. Having the ability to shoot down a satellite to gain a military advantage back on Earth exposes the basic nature of the threat: Those who are most dependent on space assets – namely, the United States, with an estimated 46 percent of the total 1,886 currently operational satellites – are also the most vulnerable to the space debris created deliberately. There is no doubt that the aggressor will also lose in such a scenario – but that collateral damage may be worthwhile if your more heavily space-dependent rival is dealt a more crippling blow.

Why space debris cleanup might be a national security threat
Fuel tank of an Iridium satellite launched in 1997-1998 re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and crashed in a California orchard where it was discovered in late October 2018. Credit: Kings County Sheriff's Office

Stealth 'counterspace race'

The set of government or commercial solutions to counter orbital debris – whether lasers, nets, magnets, tethers, robotic arms or co-orbiting service satellites – have only fueled the prospects for a stealthy race for dominance in outer space.

The same technology that captures or zaps or drags away the debris can do the same to a functioning spacecraft. Since nobody can be sure about the intent behind such proposed "commercial" space debris cleanup technologies, governments will race to get ahead of their market competitors. It matters how and with what intent you counter space debris with dual-use technologies, and more so at a time of flux in the world order. Both the old and new space powers can easily cloak their military intentions in legitimate concerns about, and possibly commercial solutions to, debris hazards. And there are now a number of open assessments about space junk removal technologies that can double up as military programs, such as lasers or hunters.

This fusion of the market and the military is not a conspiracy but a reality. If you are a great power like the United States that is heavily dependent on space assets in both the economic and military realms, then you are vulnerable to both orbital debris and the technologies proposed for its cleanup. And both your allies and your rivals know it.

This is how we have ended up in a counterspace race, which is nothing like your grandfather's space race. In a fundamental way, this new race reflects the volatile geopolitics of peer or near-peer competitors today, and there is no getting away from it in any domain. Just as on Earth, in the cosmos the world's top space powers – the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India – have moved from merely space situational awareness to all-out battlespace awareness. If things stay the course, accidental or deliberate events involving are poised to ravage peaceful prospects in outer space.

How then do we move forward so that remains safe, sustainable and secure for all powers, whether big or small? This is not a task any one single nation—no matter how great—can carry out successfully on its own. The solutions must not only be technological or military, either. For peaceful solutions to last, deterrence and diplomacy, as well as public awareness, will have to be proactively forged by the world's powers, leaders and thinkers.

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Image: Small satellite demonstrates possible solution for 'space junk'

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User comments

Nov 13, 2018
Sounds like -
Force Field Time...
Scotty - I need those shields NOW!

Nov 15, 2018
I suggest the "Hermit Crab Strategy" for Manned Mars mission.

Expensive on the delta/v budget but doable with current tech.

Gather up all that mass of junk & scraps using trawler style drones with nano-webbing.

Glue it all together into a big, outer shell, outside a smaller inner shell. With enough room for a manned ship inside of the combined structure.

No need to risk Human lives until the manned ship launches from Earth. In orbit, it slips intside the double shell & pushes off for a gravity-assist from Luna & then Earth/Luna.

No, you do not need to see where you are going. Cameras outside the hulls are quite sufficient. The velocity the Hermit Crab achieves would be beyond Human capability. Robot pilot, all the way.

During the voyage the outer hull collects incoming radiation & Sun farts & BB pellets.

Reaching Mars, before the return trip. The contaminated, ablated outer hull is discarded. Return trip protected by inner shell & needing less fuel.

Nov 15, 2018
willis wants to build a trawler by dragging a net through the earths oceans, gathering whatever crap and garbage is floating there, dragging it all to one spot, and assembling all this metal, plastic, wood, etc. into something that would actually float.

Only we can imagine that the actual territory in space is many times larger and the crap floating around there, while similar in composition, is traveling at extreme velocities and in all different directions. Willis cant understand that it would be far easier, cheaper, and quicker to build components and haul them up into orbit than to try to use GARBAGE to build trawlers.

But willis dont care - he just likes using fancy prose to describe nonsense. Its fun. Maybe people will mistake it for logic and reason.

Naw willis your ideas are like the garbage floating in the the oceans of the world. You can go to great effort to gather it all up, but you will never ever make anything useful out of it. Except more garbage.

Nov 15, 2018
'Just glue it all together...' Ahaahaaahaaaaaaaaa

Nov 15, 2018
The headline looks like clickbait. It's not the cleanup effort that's the security risk, it's the presence of stuff that needs to be cleaned up.

Meanwhile, @Blotto bloviates aside from the subject of the article as usual.

Actually commenting on the article, this is something that desperately needs to be dealt with, and for which the existing systems are competent. But I doubt the Republicans in the Senate will deal with it.

Nov 15, 2018
Just think of me as the siskel and Ebert of physorg. Double thumbs down to made-up nonsense. Say - when's your next production?

Nov 15, 2018
Well DS, I am the village atheist, infamous for disbelieving in the common rationals for Manned Space flight.

You have no idea of the effort it takes for me to say anything positive about what I consider a fruitless endeavor.

So, out of my deep humanist convictions? Once in a while, I try to suggest something positive to contribute to the sales brochure for New Jamestown and Pilgrim's Progress.

ottogimli is frothing at any ideas too sensible for his comicbook driven fantasies. Try and disregard the silly little creature. It will drive him/her/it absolutely mad with frustration.

Have I mentioned lately that I am a sadist and subotto begs for another taste of my flogger?

Nov 16, 2018
ottogimli is frothing at any ideas too sensible for his comicbook driven fantasies
Naaaw just turds wrapped in bad poetry.

Nov 16, 2018
this is something that desperately needs to be dealt with, and for which the existing systems are competent. But I doubt the Republicans in the Senate will deal with it
Well certainly big govt cant and wont.

Ambitious entrepreneurs like musk will be building large multipurpose solar farms in space which can power large multipurpose lasers. When they arent propelling payloads around the system, they can be deorbiting space junk of all sizes, and charging govts for it.

A goldmine. Many profitable uses for systems like this. And no govt can be trusted not to use them as weapons.

Nov 16, 2018
Well otto, whoever has the command codes will be the government!

To quote that Ancient Wise Sage Mao Tse-Tung "Power flows from the barrel of a gun!"

Nov 16, 2018
And what does the wise sage have to tell you about chasing down spent carbon fiber fuel tanks, aluminum foil, and steel wrenches orbiting at different altitudes and different trajectories, on opposite sides of the planet, and gluing them together into a spacecraft?

You're a retard.

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