Get Your Space Junk Away From Our Satellites. Please.


In a statement released Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "the long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors." Uh oh.

Ensuring the stability, safety, and security of our space systems is of vital interest to the United States and the global community. These systems allow the free flow of information across platforms that open up our global markets, enhance weather forecasting and environmental monitoring, and enable global navigation and transportation.

Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.

Translation: All that Soviet space junk up there is threatening U.S. satellites. And if you thought a day without Wikipedia was bad, you really don't want to experience a day without functioning space-based systems. So let's get together and figure this out. Just one hitch, says State: 

the United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a code of conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space

The U.S. isn't too keen on sharing 100 percent of what we know about which objects are where in space, since that list would include—among other things—all of our satellites. Plus, many of the technical solutions that currently exist to deal with the debris problem are basically anti-satellite weapons by another name. Which gets really awkward really quickly in international diplomacy.

So what exactly will happen next is a bit of a mystery, even to space debris nerds like space lawyer Jim Dunstan of the Mobius Legal Group. He wryly notes, "Every international discussion of this that I've seen has many zeros attached to the back end of it. Many of the people who look at this tend to be members of national or international space organizations who can't walk down the street without it costing a billion dollars."

But Dunstan holds out hope for cooperation between the U.S. and Russia nonetheless. "The Russians are far better capitalists than we are.," he says. "If you were to walk up to them and say: Here's a private approach to do this, and not only can we limit your liability for this debris, we might even be able to pay a little bit to do this—they'd listen."

We'll see.

Hey! If you haven't checked it out yet, get your mitts on a copy of Reason's Very Special Space issue. (Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds is calling it "awesomely good.") Meanwhile, Matt Welch will play "Rocket Man" on the guitar and tell you what you're missing in Reason's February edition:

NEXT: Occupy the Courts: The Irony of Protesting Against Free Speech

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  1. the United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a code of conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space

    Exceptionalism; it’s the American Way.

  2. I am space junk.

    1. “This satellite gets around even more than I do!”

    2. Johnson! How fast is it traveling?

  3. This is a legitimate concern for government.

  4. The Russians are far better capitalists than we are.

    Um, what?

    1. I think she means that those in the Russian space program probably understands the Coase theorem better than the high-minded weenies in the US space program.

    2. There’s also the fact that Russia has been selling seats into space for cash for a long time, while the US only allocates them for political reasons.

      1. If only that teacher wasn’t killed we’d have had a fireman in space, and a police officer too!

      2. Bingo. The Russians had to drag NASA kicking and screaming into letting dirty capitalist tourists fly on *their* precious national asset…


  5. We can deal with this crisis, flippantly, like good libertarians.

    1. So more comments on tits?

      1. Yes! And microbrews!

  6. “”the United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a code of conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space””

    The U.S. government has been big on we get to do it/have it and you don’t, for a long time.

    1. That, and other fun things like “we’ll arrest people who do things we’ve made illegal even if they did them where those things are still legal”.

      The US government’s reach: to space…and beyond!

  7. That reminds me, it’s about time for another anti-satellite exercise.

  8. In Soviet Russia, junk space you!

  9. I’d love to see a lit of all the things Glenn Reynolds finds “Awesomely good.”

    Rank hypocrisy
    Hagar short-sleeve dress shirts

  10. No GPS? No shit off my ass. No DirecTV? Meh.

    1. No GPS? No shit off my ass. No DirecTV? Meh.

      A satellite figures somewhere in the stream of almost all cable TV. So you’d be stuck with local/yokel news about Farmer Brown’s award winning Turnips.

      1. You’re assuming he cares about TV. I watch, but I could certainly live without it.

        1. Since he specified a brand, I assumed that he meant just that. Had he said TV, I wouldn’t have made the comment.

          I watch TV for movies on the pay channels, so I’d miss satellites a lot.

  11. “…many of the technical solutions that currently exist to deal with the debris problem are basically anti-satellite weapons by another name.”

    The kinetic kill vehicle, which is the most mature category of “solution,” is no solution at all. You just break the junk up into more pieces of junk, nearly all of which remain capable of inflicting fatal damage on space vehicles. It’s true that we destroyed a non-functioning satellite a few years ago, but its orbit was already decaying; the purpose of the shoot (aside from a convenient Aegis BMD demo) was ostensibly to prevent the release of hydrazine (the vehicle died early in life and was basically fully fueled).

    1. It’s actually a big problem and is related to the science of stopping killer asteroids as well. Hitting space objects with missiles just makes more objects. Larger objects could have their orbits destabilized by solar sails or rockets, but there’s too much debris to do that to.

      Maybe shooting stuff with low-intensity lasers to push it out of orbit? Just spitballing here.

      1. It’s the best idea I’m aware of. I don’t know how much power it would take though.

        1. I would imagine it would take a lot. Because they’d have to be on for a while to have the effect.

      2. Actually the laser idea has been around for LEO satellites. The theory is to hit the satellite with a laser as it comes over the horizon so that its orbit is perturbed enough to cause it to de-orbit. The main problem is that it would take a pretty high powered laser and many orbits to degrade the orbit enough. Also the re-entry would be somewhat unpredictable.

      3. Hitting space objects with missiles just makes more objects.

        I researched this theory quite thoroughly back around 1979-80. There was a computer that was distributed quite widely just for this research, though it cost a quarter to rent for an indeterminate amount of time.

        1. I remember participating in that study. If my results were typical, we don’t have much time before the end of civilization.

  12. They could simply send a salvage company ran by Andy Griffith up there to deal with it like we use to do in the 70’s.

    1. Very nice.

      1. Not old-school, late-70s Devo, but it’ll do.

  13. Important science breakthrough

    Actually, I should write that like this:

    Important SCIENCE! breakthrough!

  14. Big gian tfishing nets.

    They sent those oil rig guys up in that Deep Armageddon movie, here we can send up the guys from Deadliest Catch.

    1. Do we have to bring them BACK? If not, let’s add those motorcycle builders and the guys on EVERY show based in Alaska.

  15. Depending on the variables (rates of impacts per satellite, pieces of junk, pieces of new junk produced per collision, etc), at some point an impact or two can set off a cascade of impacts that could take out huge numbers of satellites real fast, and we’ll all be using soup cans on string to talk to each other.

  16. My company is actually working on a solution that could be used for capturing space debris. The reason we’re not pursuing it more aggressively is that there isn’t a clear way to monetize the solution. Right now the legal liability regime in space (as I understand it) is goofy. If a Russian satellite hits a US satellite, Russia isn’t at liability. A country is only liable if a piece of their stuff falls from orbit and lands in someone else’s country.

    Even worse, these chunks of space debris for which countries are currently not financially liable, can’t be removed without the permission of those countries.

    If we had a working liability regime in space, the problem could be solved pretty quickly, but when you have a huge liability that could cost a ton to remove, wouldn’t you prefer to keep that liability “off the books” as it were?


  17. Actually the US government already has policies in place to require that government operated satellites be designed to have enough fuel to de-orbit (in the case of LEO sats) or push out into an extremely high “disposal orbit” for GEO satellites. All satellite contractors are required to account for this in the design phase and to develop disposal plans for end of life. Also most commercial operators do similar things voluntarily. The debris problem is mostly with older dead satellites that were put up before anyone was doing this.

    This bruhaha [sp?] seems to be around the fact that the EU wants a legally binding code of conduct agreement to formalize what is currently a voluntary system. Why they feel they need one is beyond me.

    1. “. . . Why they feel they need one is beyond me.”

      Because they’re control freaks – they really believe that there is no point in having power if you don’t use it. I mean, these are the people that specify the *legally* allowed curvature of bannanas for sale.

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