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Space Debris Demands a Global Approach

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The conversation around space debris has reached a crescendo in recent months with the movies Gravity and Space Junk. By now, you're likely familiar with the stats that characterize the issue: Today there are estimated to be over 500,000 pieces of debris ranging from the size of dust particles to full rocket bodies hurtling around the earth at breakneck speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour. To put it in perspective, at such speeds an object smaller than a grain of rice could penetrate a spacecraft. And by now, it's a given that space debris is not just grist for a sensational movie drama. It is serious business being dealt with globally by the United Nations, national governments and the private sector in order to preserve space for current and future scientific and commercial opportunities. What might not be as well-known is the approach that satellite operators are taking to solve the problem of space debris in the era of the new space race -- and how a promising new trend involving small satellites called CubeSats is creating unintended consequences for space debris.

I want to share what is being done to improve the safety of satellites to alleviate the dangers and costs of space debris ... two issues that my company and I know something about. (As a bit of background, in 2009, an abandoned, uncontrolled satellite crashed into one of our active communication satellites. This collision created thousands of new chunks of space debris, but -- the good news -- it was also a wake-up call for the industry to improve information-sharing on the orbit of satellites and debris.)

Thanks to greater industry collaboration, today satellites are able to orbit more safely than ever, with new practices to prevent future collisions. We maintain close and constant communication with the primary knowledge leader in the field of space junk -- the U.S. Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) -- developing the information and format of data that is included in the Space Catalog, a resource used to track all space debris. Through these efforts, including the establishment of an international standard for conjunction warnings, we are now better able to assess the risk posed by debris and maneuver satellites accordingly to avoid even getting close -- something we've done many times since the 2009 crash. Enhanced mitigation and maneuvering abilities, coupled with procedures to de-orbit satellites at their end-of-life, reflect the best practices made to prevent new debris from entering low Earth orbit.

What else can be done about this complex but manageable problem? To quote the Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy series, "All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it's pretty damn complicated in the first place." There is no instant solution. There is enough debris in space now to easily take a century to manage, but by working globally with the UN, governments, scientific agencies, and other satellite operators and designers -- manage it we can.

The proliferation of the aforementioned Cubesats, which weigh less than three pounds and are considered disposable, present new, potential problems. Cubesats often utilize none of the maneuvering or deorbiting procedures that have made space safer and cleaner in recent years, and as a result, are creating a new challenge requiring particular attention. We encourage the industry and governing bodies like the UN and FCC to develop regulations for this new category of satellites that take into account the special challenges they pose, from the orbit they are launched into to the debris they leave behind.

While the debate regarding how to solve the issue of existing debris rages on, space operators need to make their best efforts to serve as responsible stewards of space by designing forward-looking solutions such as "cleaner" launch vehicles, developing practices to actively maneuver their space vehicles to avoid collision, and following international best practices to de-orbit end-of-life satellites. In addition, more needs to be done to contain the problem and eliminate a new category of debris and its associated risk of collision -- coming from the launch of Cubesats -- from entering the equation. While there is still more ground to cover, if we work together as a global industry, these immediate steps can help ensure a dramatic movie plot does not become our stark reality.