In the aftermath of the Iridium 33 / Cosmos 2251 collision, we now find out that the debris may stay in orbit for thousands of years, poses a serious risk to other satellites and the ISS, and has the potential to set of a chain-reaction of collisions. I wonder if it isn’t time to make some international policy changes about how we use space.
Should countries be allowed to just leave stuff up there? There’s thousands of bits of ‘junk’, everything from discarded upper stage rockets, to satellites that have broken apart. The problem, as I see it, is that the spacefaring nations of the world are acting a bit like children, refusing to clean up after themselves. Some of the debris in orbit was certainly inadvertant… rockets are after all controlled explosions, and some are more controlled than others. Other pieces of junk, such as discarded rocket stages or defunct satellites, should not have been allowed to stay up for so long. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, as of 2006 only 4% of the objects in orbit were active satellites.
We’ve created a mess up there. We need to clean it up. We also need to have some international rules that would have countries clean up their own junk in the future. Having reserve fuel to deorbit upper stages into a controlled reentry, for example. This is how the ESO disposed of the “Jules Verne”
I can already hear the objections: “It’s too expensive! It’s not practical!”. Just out of curiosity, how much does one Iridium bird cost? Turns out they run up to $100 million USD. There are a lot of companies who depend on the income derived from their birds. Huges, DirecTV, Dish, etc.
We also need some other countries to pitch in with tracking. Seems to me that the U.S. is carrying the lion’s share of this responsibility, and according to some reports (read that last link) the sheer number of objects is overwhelming our ability to track them all. Iridium LLC did not receive a warning about the collision.
There are 800 to 1,000 active satellites in orbit and about 17,000 pieces of debris and dead satellites. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network doesn’t have the resources to warn all satellite operators of every possible close call. Perhaps that needs to change.