House Panel Hears Talk of Space Junk and Business in the Stars

Debris circles the planet; the most concentrated area for orbital debris is found in low earth orbit, shown here. (Photo courtesy NASA)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Officials from NASA and the Defense Department agreed Friday that creating a “space force” as ordered by President Donald Trump would be an ambitious undertaking, but before that happens cleaning up 620,000 pieces of space debris is a top priority.

The officials – NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and General John Hyten, who oversees U.S. Strategic Command — joined Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross before a House subcommittee on space to discuss plans for managing space junk and fostering the commercialization of low-Earth orbit.

Both efforts are critical prongs of President Trump’s June 18 executive order and key to realizing his two over-arching ambitions — the creation of the space force and returning to the moon.

“Unlike past generations, activity in space is becoming largely commercial,” Secretary Ross said Friday, who noted that Trump’s directive is the first time the Commerce Department has been named as the “government interface for space traffic coordination”

But increasing commercial traffic in space requires the federal government to get a better handle on the space age junk in low Earth orbit – roughly 1,200 miles up — that now rings the planet.

Bridenstine said the debris ranges from the very large to pieces as small as 10 centimeters wide, and the dramatically varied gravitational pull on each of these items makes them ““dangerous and unpredictable.”

NASA doesn’t maintain a catalog of space debris nor does it track where space junk will be at any given time. What work is done in this regard is carried out by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, an agency of the Defense Department.

Bridenstine told lawmakers Friday that having NASA and the Defense and Commerce Departments work together is an effective and efficient approach to both monitoring space junk and allowing more commercial enterprises to reach for the stars.

With companies like Boeing and Space X talking about sending scores of small satellites into space for themselves and their customers, “managing that traffic and debris is going to be a major issue of the next century,” Bridenstine said.

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., asked Bridenstine and Hyten how they expect to deal with all this additional traffic.

“A large percentage of today’s space debris is the result of just two collisions. Now there’ll be thousands, if not tens of thousands of collision possibilities. Each one can lead to a chain reaction creating more debris that could tax the power of even the fastest supercomputer to monitor [it,]” Cooper said. “Should we punish nations or countries that cause space debris? It’s one thing to use carrots, but should we also use sticks?”

The challenge is enforcement, Bridenstine said.

While some bad activity in orbit has changed with international pressure, there’s “no real liability for damages,” he said.

The binding document driving rules of international activity in space is guided by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The treaty is clear about limiting the use of the moon to peaceful purposes and prohibiting certain kinds of weaponry in space. But when it comes to rules around who can put what in orbit where or for how long – without consequences – the document leaves something to be desired, the officials agreed.

In 2007, China sent a “kinetic kill vehicle” traveling 8,000-kilometers per second to destroy its own weather satellite. The collision created one of the most massive space debris fields in history, Bridenstine said.

General Hyten compared the future of a space force or debris management plans to wing walking a plane.

“You don’t let go of one strut on the wing until you reach the next one,” he said.

Right now, the FCC handles broadband spectrum satellite issues, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association handles remote sensor technology; the Federal Aviation Administration covers launch and re-entry regulations and NASA gives advice on protecting the space environment from debris and contamination.

But Bridenstine said the White House wants to know it can create a “one-stop shop.”

“It looks more difficult all the time,” Bridenstine said though he agreed with Secretary Ross.

“When you look at the expansion of humanity, whether its crossing the Atlantic or the continent, it has all been driven by commerce. Space has transformed all of our lives. Americans don’t recognize how dependent we are on space,” he said. “It controls how we navigate, communicate, produce food, energy, disaster relief, predict weather, monitor climate and control our national security and defense.”

Even banking requires a GPS signal on earth, he said. If things like unmitigated space debris knock that connection out, the impact is “catastrophic for our country.”

“You can’t do banking, you lose milk in the grocery stores. The next thing you know, it’s civil unrest” he said.

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