Call for control of space debris

Washington, May 10: People are working on the real-life problem of orbiting space debris that was dramatised in the Oscar-winning film ‘Gravity’, and are trying to extend the public attention created by the movie.

Space experts testifying on Friday at a US House of Representatives hearing entitled “Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life Gravity” warned that space activities – including both human travel and the dependable operation of satellites – will become increasingly dangerous if new rules are not put in place to control debris, the Guardian reported.

Foremost on the panel’s agenda was a request by the Federal Aviation Administration for additional authority over commercial satellite operators, including the authority to order evasive action to avoid collisions. No US agency currently holds such authority, and it is unclear what agency could hold an authority that would apply worldwide.

The witnesses described space as a frazzled frontier, in which more than 60 countries, dozens of companies and “a multitude” of educational and nonprofit organisations are now operating satellites – with zero universal oversight.

Two events in the last decade have driven calls for new controls on space junk. In 2007, China shot one of its own weather satellites out of orbit in an explosion that created thousands of pieces of debris. Two years later, in what is known as the Iridium-Kosmos collision, a private US satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite, notwithstanding calculations that the two would miss.

The result was the biggest single creation of space debris ever, generating an estimated 2,000 of the 23,000 tracked objects in orbit.

The duty of tracking space debris and warning of potential collisions currently falls to the defence department, which maintains 21 sensors globally, catalogues all debris and publishes partial information on the website space-track.org. The Pentagon supplies additional debris-tracking information through a subscription service to 41 companies and five countries, Raymond said.

“Several” collision avoidance manoeuvres involving debris with the space shuttle and the International Space Station have been conducted during the past 10 years, according to NASA.

But the Pentagon cannot order a private US company, such as Iridium, or a foreign company to take the expensive step of changing the orbit of a satellite. And neither, for now, can the FAA. No practical technology has been developed to dispose of the debris.

Zamka, the FAA administrator, acknowledged that any decision to order evasive action would be fraught with cost considerations and the inherent difficulty of predicting the probability of collision between two relatively small objects 800km up in the air.(ANI)