Jun 23, 2020 - Science

The looming threats posed by space junk

Illustration of an astronaut running away from a big paper ball on a hill
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The threat posed by space junk is growing — and the window for mitigating it is closing. Experts say the U.S. hasn't done enough to combat the growing problem.

Why it matters: Companies like SpaceX are working to launch hundreds of small satellites to already crowded orbits. Even if just a small percentage of them fail, it could put other satellites in danger, costing companies and governments millions of dollars and making parts of space unusable.

  • The space junk problem "shares many of the same challenges with climate change," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden told Axios. "You're asking for people to bear some additional cost and restrictions now to forestall much bigger problems in the future."

Where it stands: The defense department tracks more than 20,000 pieces of space junk and operational satellites, but there are millions of other small pieces of debris that slip under the radar and could threaten assets in orbit.

  • Two years ago, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), triggering a reorganization of how the U.S. tracks space junk and satellites, with plans to house it within the Department of Commerce instead of the Department of Defense.
  • That change was designed to allow the commerce department to leverage private companies that are tracking satellites and space debris to create a more accurate — and accessible — database of tracking data.
  • However, Congress has yet to allocate the additional funding to make the changes outlined in the directive.

Between the lines: Experts agree that SPD-3 is a good place to start when it comes to creating a space traffic management system but stress that Congress' inaction threatens U.S. leadership on regulation and policy.

  • Keeping satellites safe in orbit is an international endeavor that requires wide-ranging cooperation from every nation and company with a stake in orbit.
  • "We're not stepping up to the plate, and we're going to lose or continue to cede ground when it comes to the leadership of this," James Cooper, an engineer working on space tracking at the aerospace software company AGI, told Axios.
  • Falling behind in tracking and management also puts national security satellites and other assets in jeopardy.

The big picture: Various organizations follow their own best practices when it comes to space junk management and preventing the creation of it.

  • But it's not clear how the government will be able to enforce consequences for breaking regulations around space junk.
  • "Every Tom, Dick and Harry has a best practices [document], but so what? What about implementation and consequences for not following this stuff?" space tracking expert Moriba Jah told Axios.
  • If nations don't step up to collaborate and keep the space junk problem under control through enforcement, then it won't ruin parts of orbit for just one nation. All will be affected.

What to watch: There are currently no firm plans for wide-ranging debris mitigation efforts from governments, and it's not yet clear if companies aiming for that kind of cleanup will be able to make their business models work.

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