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Space Debris Turns Orbit Into Obstacle Course

Kelsey McBarron

On Sept. 2, 2015, San Diego’s PMW 146 launched the final installation of its $7.3 billion Mobile User Objective System, a global communications system of the U.S. Navy comprised of four geosynchronous satellites.

This constellation is one of thousands of satellites in Earth’s orbit. Satellites range from nanosats launched by college students, to commercial communications satellites owned by major corporations such as Carlsbad-based ViaSat Inc. Many satellite components are made here in San Diego at companies such as Space Micro Inc. and Vanguard Space Technologies Inc. It’s a big, growing industry.

However, in light of the heightened accessibility of outer space, a problem that has plagued space activity since the Reagan administration is worsening and could ultimately impair space travel on a massive scale. The orbital space debris crisis is coming to a perilous climax, supplemented by increased activity on both public and private levels.

Without international commitment to solving this problem, the orbital trash of today could eventually make space activity impossible for future generations.

NASA reports that Earth’s orbit currently contains over 500,000 pieces of space debris, non-functional manmade objects circling the earth at up to 17,500 mph. At those speeds, a fleck of paint has the power to crack the fused silica windows of the International Space Station.

Space debris has caused launch delays, unplanned avoidance maneuvers and collisions such as the 2009 crash of Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 over Siberia. Last July, debris from a retired Russian weather satellite passed close enough to the ISS that the crew was forced to retreat to a Soyuz capsule in case of impact.

Dangers of Space Debris

Even more concerning is a phenomenon called the Kessler Syndrome, which predicts that as low Earth orbit becomes more saturated with debris, one piece will hit another, commencing a chain effect until the orbit becomes filled with an impenetrable cloud of small, fast-moving pieces of space debris.

An incident of this nature would destroy functioning satellites and make future launches incredibly costly, if not impossible, wasting billions of dollars and setting back decades of technological progress. It would not only impede space exploration and the expansion of the commercial space industry, but it would also disable services that humans rely on, such as use of the internet, cellphone service, and weather data. It is also a considerable threat to national security.

A Kessler Syndrome scenario would destroy satellites like MUOS and severely impair navigational, reconnaissance and communication systems necessary for successful military operations.

With the November passage of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, many American private entities are gearing up to make strides in the commercial space market. The Act contains a paragraph allowing citizens to “possess, own, transport, use and sell” space resources that they might recover. This legislation has sparked a renewed economic interest in outer space.

However, though section 109 of the Act provides for a study of orbital debris mitigation, it provides little in the form of regulation. In fact, it extends a “learning period” during which the Federal Aviation Administration has reduced power to regulate certain space activities.

Though the United States is the first country to specifically allow the capture of space resources, other countries are becoming more involved in space activities, meaning orbit is growing more crowded.

Need for International Standards

While private space activity should be encouraged, space debris reduction should simultaneously be taken into consideration. It is critical that as launches increase, debris elimination and mitigation measures are also put into place, lest a tragedy of the commons situation result in the depletion of Earth’s orbit as a resource.

Currently, there is little to no international legislation regarding orbital debris. With existing law lacking basic legal definitions of terms such as “space debris” or even a definitive designation of “space,” it is difficult to discern any sort of regulation of non-functional manmade materials in orbit.

If the space industry is to survive, preservation of Earth’s orbit is crucial. Action must be taken not only to mitigate but to eliminate orbital space debris, a result that will likely only be adequately affected through a new and binding international treaty. Every advance in the space industry, whether it is a military satellite constellation, a commercial launch, or even a small satellite built by college students, depends on a functioning, debris-free orbit.

Kelsey McBarron is a third-year student at California Western School of Law in San Diego pursuing a career in outer space law and policy.

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