Space junk diplomacy
July 2nd, 2012
12:00 AM ET

Space junk diplomacy

By Jamie Crawford

Imagine waking up to a world where your cell phone doesn't work, you can't fill your car's tank using a credit card, and you cannot monitor the day's news or watch your favorite program on television. Sound farfetched? Perhaps - but the U.S. government is leading the charge with other nations to keep one possible catalyst for that scenario from unfolding.

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the United States would join the European Union and other nations to develop the "International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities" that would establish an international framework for the responsible use of space. In a statement announcing the initiative, Clinton said the United States was committed to "reversing the troubling trends that are damaging our space environment."

Eleven countries have space-launch capacity, and over 60 own and operate more than 1,100 satellites that play an unseen role in our daily lives, or serve military or intelligence-gathering dimensions for the governments who oversee their use.

The problem of space debris, or "space junk" as it is known, has become an increasing impediment to the effective management of outer space, with several near misses in recent years of both commercial and official assets for many space-faring nations.

"Unless we take action soon, if there are a number of other collisions, we could be in a situation 10 or 15 years from now where low Earth orbit is just too difficult to maneuver, which would have a dramatic impact on people's daily lives," Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, told CNN's Security Clearance.

"Every aspect of our lives is dependent on space, and how if we were denied that access and those capabilities it would dramatically affect our lives."

For Rose, the amount of debris currently in space - much it either the natural remnants of satellites whose fuel cycle has come to an end or the result of military testing - is a collective disaster waiting to happen.

The Department of Defense is able to track the approximately 22,000 objects in space that are larger than 10 centimeters. But there are hundreds of thousands of pieces, traveling at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, that are smaller and are not easily tracked - but that could cause problems in space.

A paint chip came close to partially shattering a window on a space shuttle during a mission in the '90s, and earlier this year a piece of debris that came close to hitting the International Space Station forced the four astronauts then on board to shelter in the craft's escape module until the danger passed.

Concerns over space safety were raised even further in 2007 after China, as part of a military test, destroyed a weather satellite that had become disabled. The anti-satellite test created a huge cloud of orbital debris that led many to question whether the long-term sustainability of space use was at "serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors," as Clinton said earlier this year.

The United States already plays an active role in working to prevent collisions with space debris.

The U.S. Joint Space Operation Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California provides notifications to other governments or commercial satellite operators when a piece of debris gets too close, so the satellite can be moved out of the path of debris.

And China is many times on of the receiving end of those notifications - most recently with its latest manned space mission in June.

"As has been the case for the previous Chinese human space launches, the U.S. government, working through the U.S. Department of State, offered China routine collision avoidance support to identify potential hazards to the Shenzhou spacecraft while in orbit," a U.S. official, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject, told Security Clearance. "This support is routinely provided for all human spaceflight activities (U.S., Russian and Chinese) to compare their location to any of the more than 22,000 known objects in orbit."

With no central governing architecture for its use, outer space is governed by a patchwork of informal industry standards, and certain bilateral agreements between governments that seek to mitigate the possibility of collisions. The United States is in the early stages of working with allies to create a code of conduct that would obligate countries from intentionally creating space debris.

Critics of the proposed code say such a proposed framework unnecessarily ties the hands of the United States in its development of possible future space-based weapons systems.

"This is an unnecessary constraint that we would inflict on ourselves," Dean Cheng with the Heritage Foundation told Security Clearance. "Are you willing to go into a conflict with systems you haven't tested?"

An article by John Bolton and John Yoo, two senior national security officials in the George W. Bush administration, said working with the Europeans on a space code of conduct was nothing more than a dangerous end run around Congress's role of approving international treaties.

"Since there is little our friends across the pond don't want to regulate, it is no surprise that they are now reaching for space," Bolton and Yoo wrote in The New York Times earlier this year. "Taken literally, the European Union code would interfere with our ability to develop anti-ballistic missile systems in space, test anti-satellite weapons and gather intelligence."

"It is important to clarify several points with respect to the code," Rose Gottemoeller, acting under-secretary for arms control and international security, wrote in a response that also appeared in The Times. "It is still under development, we would not subscribe to any code unless it protects and enhances our national security, and the code would not be legally binding."

Administration officials say the multi-lateral negotiations over the code of conduct is still in the very early stages and any final text is still a few years away.

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Filed under: China • Security Brief
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. steve smyth

    lhere's a solution...
    Earth's first recyclable, self-launching, zero debris satellite...TelecomsatG2...
    Take a's better than space fences, clouds of dust, or lasers...

    July 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  2. Theo Prinse


    July 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  3. Chinese Century

    John Bolton and John Yoo are nutjobs. Who in their right minds want to test anti-satellite weapons? These are thoughts that exist only in the sick minds of conservative Americans.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • Lurking Observer

      Chinese century:

      An interesting name.

      It might be of interest to you to remember that the most recent anti-satellite test was by the PRC in 2010. Prior to that, it was China that conducted a test in 2007 that generated 10% of the debris currently in orbit–the single worst debris-generating event in history.

      So, Chinese leaders must think a lot like conservative Americans?

      July 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • Fleet-Dragon

      So... Chineese Century.... very interesting name.... and i supposse you will call me a 'nut job' and if so i welcome the name because i am quite adamantly in favor of placing whatever it takes to keep VERY VERY BIG GUNS aimed at nations that have NOTHING BUT.. ANTI-UNITED STATES ACTIVITIES AT HEART... Nations that intend to attack and destroy my Nation are enemies... and enemies must be watched... very closely... so.. an agreement limiting how big-a-nuke we can put into orbit aimed at Moscow? An agreement limiting how big-a-Solar-Powered-Rail-Gun we can aim at Bejing? an agreement limiting how many lazer turrents we can put up aimed at other enemy nations... i aint in favor of that agreement... in fact.. say we oughta braek ot the old General Patton Interpritation of the Roosevelt Doctrine.... "If they cause trouble... bomb them into submission the stomp their remains into dust.. mix the dust with water and lye... sell it as soap to their ugly cousins to remind them to stay in line..."

      July 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Reply
  4. M Delaney

    If you stop and think this through, it's the same thing all over again. We at first explore an idea and think ah one rocket a little debris. Besides it will just fall down eventually. They thought the same thing in Brittan when the flushed sewage into the Thames river til it was so toxic that when a ship capsized peole died because of it. Or just a little mercury from that factory in the delta does not hurt till all the shell fish were too toxic to eat.

    Much as I hate to say this.. it is BEFORE the first drop or first peice was left, that this should have been considered.

    July 2, 2012 at 9:09 am | Reply
    • saeed

      this is very true its against the very physics of the universe that the space junk remain in orbit gravity will pull it down and it will burn in reorbit. gravity is so fundamental that its the very thing that makes a atom from nothing by the gravitational pull this article makes no sense there is no reson in this article.

      July 2, 2012 at 9:35 am | Reply
      • saeedTheTowelHead

        Baaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaaah, Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaddy?

        July 2, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  5. jiri pinkas

    world wide "Code of conduct" ain't gonna happen. Too many nutjobs running things on this planet.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:45 am | Reply

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