Space-faring nations: Clean up low Earth orbit or you're grounded.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 4 of 4)
One would expect satellite owners and insurers to take an interest, but relatively few satellites in polar orbits are privately owned, and assigning blame for orbiting debris collisions is still a fuzzy area of the law. Who was at fault, asks Johnson, when an old rocket fragment and the Cerise satellite ran into each other in 1996? Neither object had the ability to maneuver, and the fragment had been orbiting for years before Cerise was launched. "There are no rules of the road in space," he says. And because collisions have been extremely rare, insurance premiums haven't risen enough to press satellite owners into doing something about the debris problem.
And so the junk multiplies. The last year alone has seen the two worst space-junk-producing events in history. Last February, leftover propellants in a two-ton Russian Briz-M rocket stage caused it to explode, producing about 1,000 new pieces of orbital debris. Fragments from rocket stage explosions make up the majority of space junk, and most satellite-launching nations have now learned to vent leftover propellant from used rockets so they don't turn into orbiting bombs like the Briz.
But the worst case of orbital littering ever was deliberate. On January 11, 2007, as part of an anti-satellite test, China slammed some kind of impactor into its own Fengyun 1C weather satellite. By year's end, 2,500 pieces of debris were being tracked. Last summer one of those speeding fragments forced NASA to hastily move its $1.3 billion Terra Earth-viewing spacecraft out of the way. These kinds of evasive maneuvers are no longer uncommon for large spacecraft, including the International Space Station.
Expect to see satellites undertake more and more debris-dodging maneuvers. And hope that somebody finds a way to lower the cost of building and deploying space junk collectors—in case those satellites can't dodge quickly enough.