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HomeDEFENCESpace debris: is the USA serious about solving the problem?

Space debris: is the USA serious about solving the problem?

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Is the United States (US) moving towards space unilateralism? The answer could be both, yes and no. Recently for the first time, the United Nations (UN) panel formally adopted a resolution calling for a ban on destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests.

The ASAT testing resolution was championed by the US. The US looks to be very keen that various states should undertake a voluntary moratorium on ASAT testing as a first step to curbing an arms race in space. The best option available to push for this agenda was the UN route and that is what the US has taken.

The basic limitation of such resolutions is that they are voluntary and legally not binding. However, the advantage of such mechanisms is that at least they identify the problem correctly and start working towards developing global consensus on the issue.

The basic problem in regard to the conduct of ASAT tests is that they end up creating space debris, which is detrimental to the health of operational satellites. There have been some instances in the recent past of space debris impacting the health of space systems. There are various reasons for the formation of space debris. The manmade reasons for the formation of space debris include mainly defunct satellites. Such satellites, which are well past their designed life keep on rotating in space as debris. At times, they hit each other and defragmentation happens to owe to the collision. This adds more amount of debris in the space.

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Furthermore, mostly the last stage of various rocket systems, which deliver satellites into space remains there as debris. Also, there could be some missing tools in space, which could have been dropped accidentally by Astronauts during spacewalks.

In addition, there is debris owing to the ASAT tests conducted by China (2007) and Russia (2021).  Obviously, there is a requirement for a multilateral/UN-supported effort to stop any more addition to this debris, particularly by the conduct of the ASAT test.

Presently, there are approximately 8,000 metric tons of space debris, which include at least 900,000 individual pieces of space debris that are possibly harmful to the health of satellites. It is also important to remove/reduce the existing space debris so that outer space becomes cleaner and safe for satellite operations.

In recent times, there has been a sharp increase in the number of space launches, particularly in the low earth orbit (LEO) owing to the formation of various constellations for providing satellite-based internet facilities. Such satellites have a limited lifespan (3 to 5 years) and are expected to remain in space as debris after the end of their life. Hence, there is an urgent need to invest in technologies and establish mechanisms to eradicate space debris.

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Today, every country in the world is not in a position to develop technologies for debris removal.  At present, some state-sponsored and private agencies are working towards developing such technologies. However, such technologies could be easily tweaked for military purposes. Hence, any debris removal activity should happen under a global watchdog. For this purpose, a specific mechanism needs to be established under the aegis of the UN. Unfortunately, the US is taking a different position in this regard.

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On December 09, 2022, the US senate unanimously passed the Space junk bill. It is known as the Orbital Sustainability (ORBITS) Act, which is a bill to establish a first-of-its-kind demonstration program to reduce the amount of space junk in outer space. Right now, no specific funding has been earmarked for this program and some more technicalities are required to be completed before it is sent to the President for signature. It appears that in near future various procedural requirements would be fulfilled without any hindrances since the bill has been passed unanimously.

The ORBITS Act expects NASA to start a program towards developing technologies capable of safely carrying out successful Active Debris Remediation (ADR) missions. There would be a push given to private industry to collaborate with NASA in these efforts. They are first expected to establish a demonstration program and also partner with other states to address debris in orbit that belongs to them. The bill expects NASA to publish a list of dangerous debris, which require immediate attention. However, there is no clarity that how NASA should quantify this risk.

It is not clear why is USA on one hand pushing for a mechanism to stop ASAT tests which end up creating space debris, while on another hand it wants to go solo when it comes to the physical removal of debris. This raises suspicion about the actual intent of the US toward ensuring global space security.   

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Group Captain Dr Ajey Lele
Group Captain Dr Ajey Lele
Gp Capt Dr Ajey Lele is Deputy Directer General, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. An ex-Indian Air Force Officer, he holds a Master's degree in Physics (Pune University), an MPhil in Defence and Strategic Studies (Madras University), and a doctorate from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. His areas of research include issues related to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Space Security, and Strategic Technologies.


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