On November 11, the International Space Station (“ISS”) had to make an unplanned course correction. A supply ship docked to the station had to fire its rockets for about six minutes to change the station’s speed and raise its orbit slightly so the ISS could avoid striking a large piece of space debris that could have damaged the ISS and imperiled the crew of astronauts and cosmonauts on board.
Unfortunately, the space around the Earth is getting increasingly crowded. In fact, it has become a kind of junkyard up there. In the November 11 incident, the ISS dodged a part of a Chinese weather satellite that was destroyed in 2007 by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test. It doesn’t help that governments are blasting their own satellites into smithereens, adding to the existing debris fields. The article linked above notes that the 2007 missile test smashed the Chinese weather satellite “into more than 3,500 pieces of debris, most of which are still orbiting” and many of which “have now fallen into the ISS’s orbital region.”
And governments are continuing to use their satellites for target practice, notwithstanding the risks. Just this week, the Russian government conducted a missile tests on one of its old satellites that created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris that required the crew of the ISS to take shelter in their return ships. When the United States protested what it called a “dangerous and irresponsible” missile test, the Russians blithely replied that they were tracking the debris it created and claimed that the safety of the ISS crew was their “main priority.” Of course, in this case actions speak a lot louder than words.
Incidentally, the target for the Russian missile strike was an intelligence satellite that the now-defunct Soviet Union launched in 1982 that has been inoperative for decades. When you consider all of the old satellites that are in orbit around Earth, you realize it’s a target-rich environment for trigger-happy governments. And the overcrowding and debris problem gets worse with every new launch of a communications satellite to support cellphone and internet services.
We’ve got to figure out a way to address the space debris problem so the ISS, and the space stations to come, aren’t unnecessarily put in danger. Step one would be to get governments to address to stop blasting their own old satellites and littering the orbital pathways with dangerous junk. Step two would be to reach agreement on an approach to retrieving the junk and defunct satellites and safely returning them to Earth. With all of the space-related activity that has been occurring recently, you’d think that governments could put their missiles aside for a while and reach agreement on a way to clear the near-Earth space and allow everyone to use it.