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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.

Go deeper

Radiation-proofing the human body for long-term space travel

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Researchers are working to find new ways to protect the human body from radiation in space in order to allow people to live far from Earth for years at a time.

Why it matters: Big thinkers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos believe that one day people will be living and working in space, on the Moon and even on Mars for years at a time, but humans aren’t made to stand up for long to the extreme radiation environment they’ll face off Earth.

10 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.