October 24, 2013
Gravity: Let's Not Make the Movie a Reality
Related EVentsThe South Asia Center is hosting a discussion on India's space aspirations on October 29, 2013.
Today, there are 22,000 trackable pieces of debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) left behind by dead satellites and rocket launchers, including roughly 1,000 active satellites. In 2007, China added to the problem by conducting an anti-satellite weapon test. The test compounded the debris problem by increasing the number of objects greater than 1 centimeter in LEO by 15 to 20 percent. Calculations show that prior to the Chinese test, a satellite at 800 kilometers altitude would likely be hit by debris greater than 1 centimeter once in approximately five to six years. After the test, that time period was approximately cut in half. This situation worsened in 2009 when a defunct Russian satellite collided with a functioning American Iridium satellite, producing approximately 1,500 trackable objects. The problem is thus likely to grow exponentially absent a collective solution to regulate the uses of space.
The UN GGE's recommendations have come under criticism primarily because of their voluntary nature. However, the critics struggle to have an appropriate recommendation for a viable alternative. The fundamental point here is that there is no single or ideal pathway to building global best cooperative practices in space. By insisting on a legally binding agreement with an investigative and enforcement authority, one overlooks the point of making the best the enemy of the good.
US Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center monitors space debris with a worldwide network of 29 ground-based radars and optical sensors. The center also provides notifications to commercial space operators of potential risks to their satellites from space debris. In 2010 alone these warnings resulted in 126 satellite maneuvers to avoid collisions with other satellites or debris. But no country on its own has the resources, the technical expertise, or the geographical reach to resolve the problem of situational space awareness, thus making international cooperation a pivotal element towards mitigating risks to objects in space.
Today, more than sixty countries have assets in space and the significance of space in our lives is undisputed. The UN GGE's report on TCBMs in space signifies a modest beginning to address some of the challenges that routine space operations face. This process must be welcomed and built upon to help save us from turning a movie scene into reality.
Bharath Gopalaswamy is the deputy director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He has worked with the Indian Space Research Organization.