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A View from Evan I. Schwartz

An Eye in the Sky for Space Trash

U.S. military to launch first satellite to snap and relay photos of orbital debris.

  • July 15, 2010

With 20/20 hindsight, catastrophes can appear inevitable. The subprime mortgage meltdown. The BP oil spill. To avert a different kind of catastrophe, the U.S. military is trying to gain 20/20 foresight on the looming space junk crisis, which I wrote about in the June issue of WIRED.

A rendering of Boeing’s new Space-Based Space Surveillance Satellite.
Credit: Boeing

To get an unprecedented view of the space waste cluttering the heavens, the U.S. Air Force is scrambling to reschedule the launch of the first-ever Space-Based Space Surveillance Satellite. Currently, the military monitors space junk through a ground-based network of radar and optical sensors. But this would be the first time that the Pentagon would capture detailed views of the 500,000 pieces of orbiting trash by relaying photos of debris from space itself.

The one-ton spacecraft will also keep watch on other spacecraft that might pose an accidental–or purposeful–menace to any of America’s many vital satellites.

The launch, initially set for July 8, was delayed after tests found software bugs in the lift-off vehicle. The rocket is now expected to blast skyward in mid-August from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, says a spokesman for Boeing, and the lead contractor on the project.

The new eye in the sky will start snapping photos at a time when the threat posed by space waste seems to be growing. In late May, the Pentagon released an alarming report to Congress warning about future collisions among active satellite and zombiesats–like last year’s unprecedented crash between the long-retired Cosmos-2251 and Iridium-33. That smash-up added 2,000 fresh new fragments to a fast-growing catalog of debris objects. The Pentagon raised the specter that a catastrophic chain reaction of crashes has the potential to devastate the $250 billion satellite services industry, crippling global communication and commerce.

Then, in mid-June, NASA was alerted to three pieces of junk that zoomed dangerously close to the International Space Station during a docking mission. After a string of similar close calls last year, NASA officials have already called space junk the top threat to the $100 billion space laboratory and its international crew of astronauts. The ISS, flying at just 220 miles high, happens to inhabit the most cluttered band of low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Following that, President Obama released an 18-page National Space Policy that catapults the space junk problem to the very top of the space agenda. But in a break with the past, Obama not only called for more “mitigation” and monitoring of debris but also urged space junk removal, something that has yet to be tried. His 2011 budget for NASA is the first to propose funding for debris removal projects.

While the space debris situation is already perilous, the problem would be compounded if a collision between objects of different nations leads to a misunderstanding. After all, one man’s waste can be seen as another man’s anti-satellite weapon. What might at first appear to be an accident could develop into an international imbroglio.

“The center of gravity of American military power is in space,” says George Friedman, the CEO of Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based geopolitical consulting firm, in the new issue of Smithsonian. Looking ahead deeper into the 21st century, he warns that an enemy who wants to attack the U.S. would strike first by knocking out our satellites, in order “to blind us, to cripple us.”

That does sound ominous, and it’s all the more reason to pay far more attention to a different kind of UFO, the unintended flying object.

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