Debris objects in Earth’s orbit is an increasingly troublesome issue.
An international air traffic control for outer space should be set up to prevent damage to satellites and spacecraft orbiting the Earth, according to proposal to be discussed at the United Nations next week. Space experts from around the world will discuss ways of tackling the growing problem of space debris in orbit around the Earth. It comes just a year after an American satellite collided with a Russian satellite.
There are thought to be more than 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 4 inches across racing around the Earth at high speeds, while there are more than 500,000 bigger than a postage stamp. The number of particles smaller than this are thought to exceed tens of millions.
Despite their relatively small size, most are travelling faster than 15,600mph and at these speeds a fleck of paint could do as much damage as a .22-calibre rifle bullet.
Growing numbers of satellites in orbit around the Earth have also made space a more hazardous place. Low orbits have now become so crowded with satellites that operators are regularly having to make emergency manoeuvres to avoid collisions.
Officials are now proposing an international space traffic management system that will track and control the movements of spacecraft to ensure there are no accidents, much like air traffic control centres do with aircraft.
Currently the US is the only country with the ability to track satellites and debris in space, so other countries and satellite operators are reliant on the Americans alerting them to an impending threat.
Professor Richard Crowther, head of the UK delegation to the UN Committee on the peaceful uses of outer space, and an expert on space debris, said: “The potential for collisions between spacecraft and with debris is only going to increase as more and more objects are sent into space.
“Satellites now form an essential part of everyday life on Earth and many important services are provided by them, so it is crucial that we don’t have satellites being damaged or destroyed.
“What we need is a way for countries to share data about what they have up there and establish some rules of the road for space, like which satellites have to give way to others and those which don’t have the ability to move.
“The term we are using for this is Space Traffic Management, which is a bit like an air traffic control for outer space.”
The European Space Agency has already begun work on a new tracking system, the Space Situational Awareness Programme, that could form part of such an international space traffic control.
The UN committee is also due to discuss new rules about satellites that will ensure they can be recovered or burned up in the atmosphere at the end of their life. Proposals for how debris in orbit around the Earth can be cleaned up will also be put forward.
In 2008 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution endorsing new guidelines for how space debris can be reduced. The meeting comes as the UK government prepares to unveil, this week, a 20 year strategy for the future of the British space industry.