The growing field of space junk poses risks to our assets in low-Earth orbit.
Late last year, the Russian military launched an anti-satellite missile into low-Earth orbit, blowing up one of its long-defunct satellites in orbit.
As with all military weapons tests, the destruction of the Cosmos 1408 satellite was part test, part demonstration. Russia wanted the world to know it can destroy a satellite — any satellite — from the ground.
For the United States, the message was clear: Our communications, cable television, GPS — even our internet — depend on low-Earth orbit satellites, and they’re all at risk. Our military, in particular, relies on satellite communications for tasking, direction-finding, and even some weapons systems. Russia could shoot down our space advantage instantly in a potential future conflict.
Texas has been on the forefront of winning the space race since the 1960s, and for those steeped in that history, the implications of the Russian anti-satellite missile test are staggering. For those who monitor space waste, the demonstration was everything they have long feared.
But the most serious threat to American space dominance may not be Russia’s capabilities, but the accidental effects they could create. As worrisome as the potential for lost satellites may be, the creation of a massive field of space waste is downright terrifying.
In space, nothing goes away. When orbiting equipment fails, it isn’t replaced; it is abandoned. Defunct satellites make up the largest pieces of space waste, but the smallest — and most dangerous — are created when something explodes.
After Russia’s anti-satellite missile struck it, Cosmos ceased to be a satellite and instantly became 1,500 large pieces of debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces smaller than a marble. Any one of them could knock out another satellite.
From the earliest satellites to the modern Mars exploration missions, every spacecraft and satellite launch has left behind waste. Rocket boosters, inoperative satellites, spacecraft fairings, nuts, bolts and even specks of paint all form a swirling mass of trash in low-Earth orbit tracked by NASA and the Department of Defense to protect our space assets.
There are more than 500,000 marble-sized and 20,000 softball-sized pieces up there, each one traveling about seven times faster than a bullet. If any one of them collided with a spacecraft in orbit, the best case is it would damage the craft — and create more space waste. The worst case is called the Kessler effect.
In 1978, a NASA scientist named Donald J. Kessler published a theory in the American Journal of Geophysical Research that low-Earth orbit would soon be filled with so much orbiting debris that astronauts could not safely work in space, and new satellites could not be launched safely. Kessler surmised that as space debris increased, so would collisions between objects, creating an exponential expansion of space debris until, eventually, we would have to abandon low-Earth orbit entirely.
NASA refers to the effect Kessler described as “collisional cascading,” and it poses an added risk to space travel. One piece of space waste striking the International Space Station would be catastrophic, putting lives at risk and creating more waste that would threaten other low-Earth orbit assets.
Indeed, after the Russian anti-satellite missile test, the astronauts on the ISS scrambled to don space suits and take cover in an escape capsule just in case a piece of space waste struck the station. The collision did not happen. We got lucky — this time.
But we shouldn’t leave this to chance. This year, my company, Rubicon, launched Project Clear Constellation with aerospace engineers, policy leaders, and physicists from institutions such as Lockheed Martin Aerospace, Yale University and Harvard University. Project Clear Constellation offers a $100,000 prize for developing feasible, relevant solutions for removing space waste from orbit.
We are calling on all American colleges and universities to accept the challenge. Join us in preventing the erosion of our space superiority by removing space waste and cleaning up Earth orbit. Information on the annual competition can be found at clearconstellation.com
Nate Morris is a senior adviser to the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, a member of Business Executives for National Security. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.