Space travel Code of Conduct aims to limit junk in orbit

Decades of space travel activities have the Earth’s orbit littered with space junk. As the world’s nations continue activity in space, the space junk pile increases and along with it the chances of a deadly collision. Now, the United States and other nations are doing something about it.

“Space is no longer an environment accessed nearly exclusively by two superpowers or a few countries. Barriers to entry are lower than ever, and many countries are enjoying access to, and the benefits of, space in unprecedented numbers,” said Frank A. Rose, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance in a speech at the 15th annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference last week.

The U.S. Department of Defense tracks about 22,000 objects in orbit, only 1,100 of which are active satellites. The rest are things like dead satellites, spent booster rockets or orbiting debris. Experts are concerned that the man-made debris increases the odds of future damaging collisions, a situation that will only worsen as more nations explore space travel.To reduce this risk to future satellite operations and space travelers, the United States has joined the European Union calling for a uniform code of conduct that reduces the risk of further debris-generating events, reducing the need to maneuver around debris, expending precious fuel.

“I believe that 2012 will be a defining year for space security, and the work we all will do in responding to the challenges in, and the threats to, the space environment can help us preserve space for all nations and future generations,” said Rose. “We look forward to partnering with the commercial space transportation industry in this effort.”

Flickr photo by AsylumSeaker

Space junk is out of control, scientists say

It’s a dilemma faced by every adventure traveler: to find the perfect remote spot untouched by modernity, free from cell phones, television, and trash. Of course there is no such place, not even in space. In fact, the orbital detritus of modern life can be downright dangerous, scientists warn.

A new report from the National Research Council says there are so many bits of trash in orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to fragments like nuts and bolts, that they’re bumping into each other, breaking apart, and making more trash. Around 22,000 large pieces of space junk are tracked from the ground, occasionally prompting the International Space Station to maneuver out of the way, and there are hundreds of thousands of more pieces too small to be detected. It amounts to a cloud of trash surrounding the earth, as this NASA image shows.

This puts current astronauts and future space tourists in peril. With the high velocities objects achieve in orbit, it’s like having hundreds of thousands of bullets flying around the Earth.

And it’s getting worse. The BBC reports two satellites crashed in 2009 and broke apart. Also, the Chinese tested a satellite killer in 2007 that successfully smashed up its target into more than 150,000 pieces larger than a centimeter. The U.S. and Soviet Union tested similar weapons back in the 1960s and 1970s, creating their own clouds of debris.

Several manned spacecraft have been hit by space debris. Two Shuttle missions have had radiator panels in the cargo bay punctured by debris. The International Space Station and Mir have both suffered numerous impacts. Sometimes the damage is caused by natural micrometeorites.

One certain impact by space debris was in 1983 when a fleck of paint smacked into the space shuttle Challenger’s front window and left a crater, as you can see in this NASA image.

If a fleck of paint can do this to the Space Shuttle, imagine what an old rocket booster could do.