WASHINGTON — Got Junk? Space does.
More than 600,000 pieces hurtling above and around the planet at speeds so high they threaten communications systems, weather satellites and other segments of the nation’s burgeoning commercial space industry operating in Earth’s lower orbit.
With that in mind, President Trump signed an order Monday designed to reduce the amount of debris floating in space. Formally known as Space Policy Directive – 3, it instructs federal agencies to implement a “state-of-the-art framework” to manage the flow of objects ranging in size from flecks of metal the size of paint chips to eight-ton rocket stages.
The challenge is expected to grow as the price of launching satellites decreases and more players enter the commercial space market.
The president’s order calls for improving the tracking of debris that poses risks to satellites and other space infrastructure and sharing that data with aerospace companies who launch and operate in Low Earth Orbit.
“Two previous administrations tried and failed to develop a system to deal with congested conditions in orbit,” Trump said as he addressed the National Space Council Monday. “We are finally going to get it done. It’s going to happen fast.”
The directive, similar to an executive order, builds on two previous space-related orders from Trump. The first, signed in December, directs a return to the moon while the second, signed in February, instructs agencies to streamline rules and regulations for the commercial space industry.
How much is flying around is subject to debate.
The Department of Defense tracks some 20,000 objects, such as satellites, orbiting Earth. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency will play a central role in managing space debris, pointed to a study pegging the number of objects that can inflict “significant damage or destruction” at about 620,000. The European Space Agency uses a statistical model that estimates the number of items at least 1 millimeter in size at 166 million.
Whatever the exact number, the International Space Station and satellites must regularly be repositioned to avoid being struck by items circling the globe at speeds that approach 10 times faster than a bullet. Solar panels that power the satellites are especially vulnerable to debris strikes, Ross said during the National Space Council meeting.
A 2014 hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee addressed some of the dangers space junk poses.
The Air Force Space Command that tracks space junk issues hundreds of alerts every day warning satellite operators of a possible collision. About 75 percent of the 1,400 satellites orbiting the planet are maneuverable and are moved every three days on average “to avert a potential collision,” General John W. “Jay” Raymond, the head of the Air Force Space Command, told Bloomberg in a 2017 interview.
Crew members aboard the space station have had to shelter in their Russian Soyuz spacecraft at least three times when hazardous debris was detected with too little warning to maneuver around it.
“Aside from launch and re-entry, orbital debris poses the highest risk to human space flight,” former NASA shuttle astronaut George Zamka told a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee during a 2014 hearing. “During my two space missions, we flew upside down and backwards to protect our shuttle windows from orbital debris. And even doing that, we had debris strikes and cracks in our windows.”
More than 5,000 trackable objects are zipping around the globe due to two separate incidents: a 2009 collision between a commercial communications satellite and a decommissioned Russian military communications satellite, and China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007.
Despite the dangers posed by existing debris, the president’s directive is aimed primarily at alerting satellite operators about potential threats and to mitigate the amount of new debris that could be introduced into space, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, told reporters in a conference call Monday morning.
Right before sitting down to sign the directive, Trump instructed the space council not to over-regulate space junk.
“Don’t let it get too out of control, please,” said the president who has made deregulation a cornerstone of his Make America Great Again agenda. “Be careful. Don’t get too carried away.”