Trash in space may bring commerce and communications on Earth to a halt unless policy makers and executives take steps to prevent satellite collisions with orbiting junk, according to a Pentagon report.
Potential crashes between satellites and debris -- refuse from old rockets, abandoned satellites and missile shrapnel -- are threatening the $250 billion space-services market providing financial communication, global-positioning navigation, international phone connections, Google-Earth pictures, television signals and weather forecasts, the report says.
Space is “increasingly congested and contested,” said the U.S. Defense Department’s interim U.S. Space Posture Review, which was sent to Congress in March and not publicly released.
Scientists are warning that space collisions could set off an uncontrolled chain reaction that might make some orbits unusable for commercial or military satellites because they are too littered with debris. The February 2009 crash between a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite and an Iridium Communications Inc. satellite left 1,500 pieces of junk, each whizzing around the earth at 7.8 kilometers (4.8 miles) a second and each capable of destroying more satellites.
“This is almost the tipping point,” Bharath Gopalaswamy, an Indian rocket scientist researching space debris at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “No satellite can be reliably shielded against this kind of destructive force.”
Chinese Missile Test
A Chinese missile test destroyed a satellite in January 2007, leaving 150,000 pieces of junk in the atmosphere, according to Gopalaswamy. That test was a central factor in pushing the U.S. to help the United Nations issue guidelines urging companies and countries not to clutter orbits with junk, the Space Posture Review says.
“Nobody recognized this as a big issue until a few years ago,” said Chris Kunstadter, vice president of insurance operations at XL Capital Ltd., a New York-based company selling satellite policies. “The Chinese interceptor test and the Iridium incident opened our eyes.”
In low-earth orbit, between 800 and 1,000 kilometers above the planet, there are now more than 370,000 pieces of junk, compared with 1,100 satellites, Gopalaswamy estimates. The U.S. Space Posture Review, the second produced since 2007, forecasts orbital congestion will worsen.
Space needs “policies and laws to protect the public interest,” UN Office on Outer Space Affairs Director Mazlan Othman said in an interview. “We should have all the instruments to make sure that lifestyles are not disrupted because of misconduct in space” when people “switch the television to watch the World Cup next month in Johannesburg.”
“We are seeing an increasing number of incidents when operators have to maneuver their satellites to avoid a piece of debris,” David Wade, an underwriter at London-based Atrium Space Insurance Consortium, said in an e-mail responding to questions. “Performing these maneuvers consumes additional fuel and reduces the lifetime of the satellite.”
XL and Atrium, a partner with Lloyd’s of London, say that the higher risk of satellite collisions with debris hasn’t yet led to higher premium payments.
Officials at low-earth orbit satellite operators Dulles, Virginia-based GeoEye Inc., Longmont, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe Inc., which provides satellite imagery to Google Earth, and McLean, Virginia-based Iridium Communications, with the world’s biggest satellite constellation, declined to comment.
Communications satellites at altitudes of 36,000 kilometers also face space debris problems. Companies sometimes resort to “gentlemen’s agreements” through the UN’s International Telecommunications Union under which they temporarily rely on satellites from competitors when services are threatened, Yves Feltes, a spokesman for SES SA, the world’s biggest publicly traded satellite operator, said in a telephone interview.
A satellite operated by Luxembourg-based SES was threatened by an out-of-control Intelsat-Galaxy-15 satellite in May. Intelsat S.A.’s satellite interfered with the transmission frequency of an SES space asset after Earth-bound technicians couldn’t regain control over the Galaxy-15.
Intelsat and SES are both pioneers in the commercial uses of space. Intelsat began transmitting signals in 1965, the result of a law signed by President John F. Kennedy giving private companies access to space. SES was launched in 1985 as Europe’s first private satellite network.
“We are working closely with SES, and have been since the early days of the anomaly, to minimize the interference that could be caused by the satellite as it flies by other satellites,” Intelsat spokeswoman Dianne VanBeber said in an e-mail response to questions. The closely held company may have to take an impairment loss for the Galaxy-15 satellite, valued at $142 million, Intelsat said May 12.
“Any outage due to an unexpected technical or health problem usually leads to credits to the customers for compensation,” SES says on its website. “An hour of outage for a satellite can cost as much as $150,000.”
TV viewers may face programming interruptions unless rival companies adjust to the defunct Intelsat satellite’s orbit, according to the UN. The incident highlights the need for tougher regulations.
“Satellites are becoming an ever greater part of our everyday lives,” Wade said. “We certainly hope that there will be no further irresponsible acts such as targeting satellites with weapons which would increase the debris threat even further.”
The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will debate how best to reduce orbital debris when it meets in the Austrian capital on June 9.