Space-Faring Nations Must Better Monitor and Mitigate Space Debris, Witnesses Say


Today, the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee held a hearing to examine the challenges faced by civil and commercial space users as the number of satellites and the amount of space debris orbiting Earth continues to grow. The Subcommittee explored potential measures to improve information available to civil and commercial users to avoid in-space collisions with satellites and other man-made debris, as well as ways to minimize the growth of future space debris.

“Satellite collisions and the dangers posed by space debris have captured the public’s and industry’s attention,” said Subcommittee Ranking Member Pete Olson (R-TX). “If anything, the Iridium/Cosmos collision should serve as a stark signal that space-faring nations can no longer be complacent about the threats posed to all who use space.”

Olson continued, “Given the critical role that space plays in our daily lives, and one that is so vital to preserving our high standard of living, we simply must improve our ability to monitor and mitigate the threats posed by other satellites and space debris. I think it is also essential that we convince other space-faring nations of the urgency to adopt similar strategies, especially as more and more satellites are lofted into crowded orbits.”

The February 2009 collision between an Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite above Northern Siberia highlighted the growing problem of congested orbits, space debris and the need to minimize the chances of in-space collisions. Two years earlier a Chinese anti-satellite weapons test created thousands of fragments that continue to orbit high above Earth. All of this space debris has become a challenge for ensuring future safety of civil and commercial spacecraft and satellites. As recently as last month, astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station maneuvered the connected crafts to avoid a piece of space debris that NASA believed could potentially have led to an impact.

Witnesses at today’s hearing discussed possible ways forward to deal with space debris in Low Earth Orbit. The Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris at NASA, Mr. Nicholas Johnson, noted that “The international aerospace community has already made significant strides in the design and operation of space systems to curtail the creation of new orbital debris.”

As for the debris that is already on orbit, witnesses and Members discussed the need for advances in space surveillance, such as better sensors and data. Mr. Richard DalBello, Vice President of Government Relations for Intelsat General Corporation, a large commercial satellite operator, said that there “seems to be a general acceptance among space operators that certain guidelines or norms developed by consensus may play a useful role in ordering our future space activities.” DalBello continued to say that the development of other non-binding guidelines could play a role in preventing new space debris.

From a national defense perspective, USAF Lt. Gen. Larry James, said, “We need to be able to discriminate between natural and man-made threats. We need to understand the location, status and purpose of these objects, their capabilities, and their owners’ intent. This comprehensive knowledge enables decision-makers to rapidly and effectively select courses of action to ensure our sustained freedom of action and safety in what is clearly a contested environment.”

James continued, “To get there we require more automated, net-centric capabilities to command and control space forces, and networked sensors and information systems that seamlessly share information to more effectively use our current resources.”

The following witnesses testified today before the Committee:

Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, Commander, 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command, And Commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command;

Mr. Nicholas Johnson, Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris, National Aeronautics and Space Administration;

Mr. Richard DalBello, Vice President of Government Relations, Intelsat General Corporation; and

Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, George Washington University.

For witness testimony and more information about today’s hearing, please visit the Science and Technology Committee GOP website.

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