U.S. Joins Effort to Clean Up Space Environment

HERZLIYA, Israel, January 30, 2012 (ENS) – Decades of space activity have littered low Earth orbit with debris, and as the world’s spacefaring nations increase their activities, the chance for collision increases. The security of space also is threatened by what U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space and Defense Policy Frank Rose Sunday called “irresponsible actors.”

“Irresponsible acts against space systems have implications beyond the space environment, disrupting services upon which civil, commercial, and national security sectors around the world depend, with potentially damaging consequences for all of us and to future generations,” warned Rose.

Computer generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are being tracked. About 95 percent of them are debris, not functional satellites. (Image courtesy NASA)

For these reasons, the U.S. government has decided to join with the European Union and other nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, Rose told colleagues at the 7th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference at Herzliya.

The conference is held annually in memory of Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. He served as space shuttle payload specialist of STS-107, the fatal mission of Columbia, in which he and six other crew members were killed in a February 2003 re-entry accident.

A Code of Conduct “will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space,” Rose told the conference attendees.

Rose was conveying to the conference the policy set forth on January 17 by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, “The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors. Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.”

“Ensuring the stability, safety, and security of our space systems is of vital interest to the United States and the global community. These systems allow the free flow of information across platforms that open up our global markets, enhance weather forecasting and environmental monitoring, and enable global navigation and transportation,” Clinton said.

Today there are approximately 60 nations and government consortia that operate satellites, as well as numerous commercial and academic satellite operators, creating an environment that is increasingly congested.

Cobra Dane phased array radar located on Shemya Island, Alaska can detect and track objects as small as five cm. It is a contributing sensor to the U.S. satellite catalog. (Photo courtesy NASA)

The U.S. Department of Defense tracks roughly 22,000 objects in orbit, of which 1,100 are active satellites.

In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of additional objects too small to track but still capable of damaging satellites in orbit and the International Space Station.

“We need to work with the international community to address hazards and concerns that have arisen from this increasingly congested space environment,” said Clinton.

The United States will work with the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, published by the EU in 2008 with a revised draft released in September 2010.

Among its concerns, the EU draft takes into account “that space debris constitutes a threat to outer space activities and potentially limits the effective deployment and exploitation of associated space capabilities” and strives for “the formation of a set of best practices aimed at ensuring security in outer space could become a useful complement to international space law.”

At the space conference, Rose drew a more detailed picture of how a Code of Conduct might work.

“Ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment – through measures such as providing prior notifications of launches of space launch vehicles, establishing “best practices guidelines,” and warning of risks of collisions between space objects,” Rose said, “are in the vital interest of the United States and the entire world community and enhance our mutual security interests.”

One of the ways the United States is moving forward in 2012 is through pursuit of “near-term, voluntary, and pragmatic transparency and confidence-building measures,” which Rose called “TCBMs.”

“Through TCBMs we can address important areas such as orbital debris, space situational awareness, and collision avoidance,” said Rose, “as well as undertake activities that will help to increase familiarity and trust and encourage openness among space actors.”

As four major undertakings get underway, 2012 will be a defining year for advancing this goal, said Rose.

  1. Negotiations on an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities
  2. Initial meetings of a group of government experts on space transparency and confidence-building measures established by the United Nations
  3. The introduction of space security in the discussions at the Group of Eight, G8, summit, which will take place in Chicago in May
  4. The continuing work of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on the Long Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities
On January 21, 2001, part of a Delta 2 rocket reentered the atmosphere over the Middle East. The 70 kg titanium motor casing landed in Saudi Arabia about 240 km from the capital, Riyadh. (Photo courtesy NASA)

At the conference in Herzliya, Rose made it clear that the United States would not relinquish any of its national security interest in favor of an International Code of Conduct.

“The Obama Administration is committed to ensuring that an International Code enhances national security and maintains the United States’ inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, a fundamental part of international law,” he told conference attendees.

“The United States would only subscribe to such a Code of Conduct if it protects and enhances the national and economic security of the United States, our allies, and our friends, and it does not hamper, limit, or prevent the United States from using space for peaceful purposes, including national security related activities.”

The European Union takes a different view of space security.

In November 2011, at a conference on EU Space Policy, Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency said, “Europe’s leadership is not linked to security and defence drivers, unlike all other space powers in the world.”

But Secretary Clinton was emphatic on this point. “As we begin this work,” she said earlier this month, “the United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a Code of Conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space or our ability to protect the United States and our allies.”

“We are, however,” she said, “committed to working together to reverse the troubling trends that are damaging our space environment and to preserve the limitless benefits and promise of space for future generations.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.