Space junk — the time bomb orbiting above our heads

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OP-ED

by Charity Weeden

iPolitics
October 6, 2016

On the morning of February 10, 2009, the unthinkable happened.

High above Earth, in a heavily-populated orbit, two satellites with a combined mass of 1,400 kg collided at nearly 42,000 kilometers per hour.

This was not a weapons test; one of those had happened two years prior, when the Chinese conducted target practice on an old weather satellite in an orbit just 80 km higher. This was an extremely low-probability unintended event between a functioning and a non-functioning satellite that surprised all concerned. The collision shattered both satellites and created nearly 2,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters that quickly spread out around Earth in rings. Hundreds of those pieces remain in orbit today and will be there for the next few decades, posing a hazard to other satellites.

This collision was not a one-off event. Rocket stages have exploded in orbit, satellite fragments have been shed and there have been hundreds of warnings of potential collisions with active satellites, including some that require astronauts to seek shelter in the Soyuz escape vehicle attached to the International Space Station.

Canada is not immune to this threat. As Michel Doyon of the Canadian Space Agency told the Canadian Smallsat Symposium last February, an active and unmanoeuvrable Canadian satellite came very close to colliding with a Bulgarian satellite on the morning of December 23, 2015. The closest approach was predicted at 27 meters — a hair’s width in the vastness of space — creating a frighteningly high risk of a large-scale space debris event, this time involving Canada.

The inoperable Radarsat-1, which died in its operational orbit in 2013, also happens to be in proximity to the 2009 collision fragments and the near-miss last December. That is 2.7 metric tons of sitting duck that could become a lethal hazard.

Debris-generating events are a major concern for all nations. This is because of the increasing value that satellites play in our modern society. Economies flourish, nations are more secure, the public reaps the technological and inspirational benefits — all because of nearly 1,400 operational satellites in a handful of orbits that are becoming increasingly congested. Meanwhile, governments and commercial companies are planning to launch thousands of additional satellites over the next several years.

This growing realization of our dependence on space, woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, has drawn greater international attention to the long-term sustainability of Earth’s orbits. However, there is little consensus on what to do about it, how to manage it, or even how to define what responsible space operations look like in order to prevent the long-term degradation of the space environment or future catastrophic events.

For this fundamentally global problem, preventative measures are also applied unevenly; some countries regulate more heavily than others in order to mitigate the potential for a collision. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) voluntary guidelines are one of the very few agreed upon by major space players, including Canada. Still, properly disposing of a satellite 25 years after its end of life (an IADC guideline) does not address the new reality of smaller, more numerous satellite constellations — many of which have a life design of under five years — nor does it address the tens of thousands of existing debris objects.

On the road to long-term global solutions, there’s a unique opportunity for Canada. As well-respected diplomats and communicators, Canada’s middle ‘space power’ status influences both emerging space nations — the ones just beginning to learn and benefit from indigenous space programs and satellite applications — and established space powers that are looking to sustain and advance their space capabilities.

Canada has operated in space for 54 years, has been part of satellite tracking alongside the United States (in NORAD and now at the Joint Space Operations Center with United States Strategic Command) and has had its own ground-based and space-based satellite tracking capability. Canada’s position and open dialogue within the United States, Europe and the Commonwealth puts this country in the middle of the orbital debris conversation.

For the first time, a Canadian, Dr. David Kendall, is chairing the full United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), setting the tone for future global dialogue and sharing mechanisms of space data during this critical period. A major agenda item for COPUOS is developing guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space activities, which has its roots in a proposal by Canadian Karl Deutsch, former Chair of the Scientific and Technical Committee of COPUOS in 2004. If ever the stars were aligning for Canada to ramp up efforts and shine in space diplomacy, that time is now.

Canada needs to commit to being a beacon for the long term sustainable use of space, to the technologies that enable better prediction and warning of potential collisions, to the human resources needed to support bilateral, multilateral and international space diplomacy efforts, and to lead by example in responsible space operations.

At the end of the day, this issue is not about space. It’s about managing natural resources, providing national security, connecting Canadians, enabling educational and medical services via distance, being able to innovate in science and technology, growing an economy based on these innovations, and inspiring Canada’s youth to become the explorers of tomorrow — all things that are dependent on Canada’s use of Earth orbit, now and into the future.

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