Space Debris

We are in the process of messing up space, and most people don’t realize it because we can’t see it the way we can see fish kills, algal blooms, or acid rain. To avoid trashing Earth orbit, we need a sense of urgency that currently no one has. Maybe we’ll get it when we can’t get our satellite television and our telecommunications, our global weather reports and hurricane predictions. Maybe when we get knocked back to the 1950s, we’ll get it. But by then it will be too late.

Michael Krepon, Stimson Center

What You Need to Know

Orbital space is a valuable natural resource, serving as home to the International Space Station, the Fermi space telescope, and nearly 1400 government and commercial satellites that are essential to communications and navigation, forecasting weather, managing natural disasters and public health challenges, monitoring climate change and human rights abuses, fostering sustainable development, and maintaining national security.

Space is not faring any better under human management than the oceans or atmosphere, however. Key orbits have become congested with human-made debris, or space junk. Among the objects are defunct satellites and rocket bodies, dead batteries, solid rocket motor waste, discarded camera lens caps, stray nuts and bolts, and paint flecks. Given the speed of orbital objects, a piece of metal debris the size of a marble can disable a spacecraft.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks over 23,000 pieces of debris the size of a soft ball or larger. The NASA graphic on this page uses dots to represent the location of objects tracked in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within 2000 kilometers of the Earth’s surface. The dots are scaled to the image. An additional 500,000 objects larger than a centimeter also orbit Earth, and there are millions of even smaller fragments.

Nine satellites have been destroyed or disabled by debris. International Space Station crews have jumped into escape capsules on several occasions when debris orbited too close for comfort. NASA’s $690 million dollar Fermi space telescope was nearly hit by a dead Russian spy satellite.

A report from the National Research Council (NRC) says the debris problem has reached a tipping point in the most highly used parts of low Earth orbit (LEO). The density of debris is so great that collisions generate additional pieces of debris faster than atmospheric drag removes them from orbit. The new debris further increases the frequency of collisions and risk of spacecraft failure. Donald Kessler, who led the NRC study, says we have lost control of the space environment. Because the debris population is growing exponentially, parts of LEO could become unusable within the next ten to twenty years. This is not much lead time to address the problem because the answers will not be easy.

The immediate challenge is to stabilize the LEO environment. The NRC calls for research into new technologies to remove dead satellites and rocket bodies from orbits where collisions are most likely to occur, a process called Active Debris Removal (ADR). This would reduce the volume of debris from which new debris can be created. Removing the 500 most dangerous objects, even at the slow rate of five to ten per year for the next one hundred years, would solve much of the problem.

NASA and other space agencies are investigating a variety of ADR concepts. The possibilities include lasers to slow down objects so that they fall into the atmosphere more quickly and burn up; “space tugs” with robotic arms to rendezvous and grapple with inactive satellites; electro-dynamic tethers to generate drag and lower dead spacecraft into the atmosphere; space nets to capture debris; and solar sails to accelerate the de-orbiting of satellites when they complete their missions.

According to NASA scientist Jer-Chyi Liou, though, there are reasons to doubt the technological feasibility and economic viability of each of these concepts. Kessler, who used to head NASA’s Orbital Debris Office, is discouraged by the fact there is no real institutional momentum or funding behind ADR research and development.

In addition to ramping up ADR research efforts, we need to minimize the creation of new debris through international diplomacy that promotes the universal adoption of mitigation practices, improved traffic management, and a prohibition on anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) testing and use. Progress remains elusive in each of these areas.

Mitigation guidelines for routine space operations have been adopted by the U.S. and some other nations on a voluntary basis. These include venting excess rocket fuel into space when missions are completed in order to reduce the risk of explosion, and de-orbiting old satellites from LEO so they burn up in the atmosphere. Because the guidelines add to the cost of missions, however, some countries are unwilling to follow them.

We also need a better traffic management system for space. In 2009, a functioning U.S. communications satellite collided with an inactive Russian military communications satellite and created over 2000 pieces of metal, foil and plastic large enough to be tracked. To prevent future catastrophes, the sixty nations and private entities that operate satellites need better information about objects orbiting nearby. The most comprehensive set of positional and orbital data is maintained by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. The challenge for American officials is to find a way for the many users of LEO to access this information without compromising vital national security interests.

Unless the threat of intentional satellite destruction is addressed, efforts to preserve a sustainable space environment through an ADR program and improved mitigation practices and traffic management may prove futile. The informal ban on weapons testing in space that had been in effect since the end of the Cold War was shattered when China fired an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) at an old polar-orbiting satellite in 2007. This event doubled the debris threat in the most heavily used region of LEO. Other nations also possess ASAT capabilities, including the United States.

As the country most dependent on space-based technologies, the United States should lead the effort to negotiate a verifiable agreement that bans testing and use of destructive ASATs. The Obama administration tried to consult with international allies about establishing such a moratorium in 2014. It was blocked by Congressional opponents who want the U.S. to continue to develop its space warfare capabilities.

A recent initiative by the European Union to negotiate an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities was supported by the United States but failed to gain traction in the face of opposition from China and Russia. The instrument would not have been legally binding but would have fostered cooperation by establishing norms of behavior that could be codified later in a formal treaty. Among the norms was a prohibition on the intentional destruction of satellites.

Solving environmental problems in space, James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School writes, is similar to solving them on Earth. We know that international collaboration is the only way to address shared risks and is mutually beneficial in the long run, but such awareness does not make collaboration inevitable. The growing fragmentation of power among self-serving countries and groups makes it difficult to reach an agreement or to take action.

Why Is Space Debris an Issue of Faith?

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Psalm 8

In 1959, Professor Jack Finegan of the Pacific School of Religion wrote that the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, had brought the world as much fear as joy. It is harder to harness great forces for good than to set them free in the first place, he observed, and we have a long history of using important technological advances for destructive purposes. For this reason, he hoped the Space Age would turn people to theology and to the God of whom theology speaks.

The first verse of Genesis affirms that God created the heavens and the earth, a pivotal theological conviction that was highlighted by delegates to General Synod 30 when they approved a resolution on Responsible Stewardship of the Outer Space Environment. The resolution praises God “for the majesty, mystery, and complexity of the whole creation, from the Earth to the outer reaches of the universe.” It also acknowledges “human responsibility for stewardship of the planet Earth, its ecosystems and the larger cosmological system of which it is a part.” The first statement on the subject of the space environment to be adopted by a religious body, the resolution calls on UCC members to advocate with Congress for adequate funding of debris removal research and for support of diplomatic efforts to promote the responsible use of space.

As we expand our presence in space, we need to carry our best ethical insight with us instead of parking it next to the launch pad. Our aim should be to foster a sustainable space environment, one that can be used in peaceful ways for the social and economic betterment of all humanity, now and in the future.

The concluding verse of “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens” in the New Century Hymnal is a fitting prayer for our space-faring civilization:

As each far horizon beckons, may it challenge us anew,
Children of creative purpose, serving others, honoring you.
May our dreams prove rich with promise, each endeavor well begun,
Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one.

What You Can Do

  • Organize a study group in your congregation. Begin by reading Space Sustainability: A Practical Guide from the Secure World Foundation.
  • If your congregation has an environmental ministries task force, encourage it to devote some attention to space sustainability.
  • Ask your pastor to address the space debris challenge from the pulpit as part of the church’s broader ministry of caring for creation.
  • Invite aerospace engineers and space scientists from your congregation or from nearby schools and universities to offer an adult education program on the subject.
  • If you are a science teacher, introduce your students to environmental challenges in space. Click here to view the K-12 Educator’s Guide for Space Junk 3-D, the IMAX movie, with lesson and project ideas.
  • Write to your U.S. Senators and Representatives. Urge them to support the development of new technologies to clean up orbital space and to engage in diplomatic efforts to minimize the creation of new debris. Follow up with telephone calls to staff members.

Links and Resources