Space Debris in the 21st Century

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In this time-lapse photo of the stars, the faint dashed line from the bottom left corner to the center is the track of a satellite.
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Photograph of the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test explosion on July 9, 1962.
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Time lapse photo of the NASA Oriole IV sounding rocket as an aurora dances over Alaska. All four stages of the rocket are visible in this image.
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A large satellite launches several cubesat satellites into orbit.

Human space activity is on the verge of a major expansion—but only if uncontrolled traffic and national rivalries do not ruin it first. Once the preserve of the two superpowers during the Cold War, space is now becoming widely accessible to hundreds of new actors: developing countries, start-up companies, universities, and even private individuals. But this expansion of new players and spacecraft coincides with a range of emerging problems: a growing field of dangerous orbital
debris, limits in the available radio frequency spectrum, and crowding in the critical geostationary orbital belt 22,300 miles above Earth’s surface.

The commercial sector is gearing up to offer a range of new space-based communications services (including mobile broadband), and various companies, from SpaceX to Virgin Galactic, are likely to begin carrying private passengers on orbital and suborbital flights within the next five years. Earth-observation technologies are also improving rapidly, with companies like Planet Labs, Google’s Skybox, and Digital Globe offering more timely and more precise images than were ever available before. Lower launch prices in an increasingly competitive marketplace will further stimulate the expansion of space activity, especially given the option of ultra-cheap—but highly capable—miniature satellites, known as cubesats.

As a result, the U.S. National Security Space Strategy now describes space as “congested, contested, and competitive.” Behind Washington’s concerns is the range of new space powers moving into military activities in orbit. Officials describe a future in which the United States may face asymmetric vulnerabilities relative to its military competitors due to its heavy reliance on space assets. The rise in counterspace efforts by China, in particular, suggests that emerging conditions may make the Cold War in space look like a cakewalk.

Earth orbital space, which used to seem infinite, now appears quite finite and at risk. While the 2013 movie Gravity was not perfectly accurate in its depiction of a deadly debris cascade in low-Earth orbit started by a Russian weapons test, it was not all that far off. To understand the current situation and its dynamics, it is useful to review the nature of emerging space threats, the trends among major space powers, and some possible remedies for preserving space for the use of future generations.

Read the full article in the Summer 2015 issue of Utne Reader or in the January 2015 issue of Current History.

James Clay Moltz is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author, most recently, of Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space. The opinions expressed here are his personal views, not those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense. Reprinted from Current History (January 2015), a monthly journal of contemporary world affairs.

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