Satellite collision prompts calls for space traffic control system

  • Chicago (IL) – A recent collision between a non-operational Russian satellite and an Iridium satellite, which resulted in the destruction of both satellites raised concerns over the increasing pollution of the orbit with debris and prompted calls for a civil space traffic control system. The Secure World Foundation claims that such a move is necessary to address the “increasingly congested environment” in space.

    We typically assume that space is a whole lot of “nothing”, but a closer look at satellite tracking data provided by the UCS Satellite Database reveals that hundreds of operational satellites and tens of thousands of “junk” is orbiting Earth. There are currently 905 operational satellites in orbit, 443 of which belong to the U.S. government or companies. There are almost 6000 non-operational satellites plus another 10,000 to 11,000 pieces of debris that can be tracked (down to a size of 2 inches). It is estimated there are another 15,000 to 20,000 pieces of junk that is smaller to be able to be track in orbit at this time.

    The oldest satellite being tracked is U.S. Vanguard 1, which was launched in 1958 and is expected to remain in Orbit until 2200.

    The recent collision between the inactive Russian Cosmos 2251 and a commercial low-earth orbiting (LEO) Iridium satellite in an altitude of 485 miles and a combined speed of more than 30,000 mph added a substantial amount of debris to orbit. While Iridium was able to quickly replace the destroyed satellite with one of its six spares (the Iridium constellation consists of 66 satellites + six spares), it is estimated that the collision resulted in hundreds of pieces of junk: More than 500 pieces from the Cosmos satellite and 194 pieces from the Iridium satellite are currently being tracked in two separate debris clouds. AP today reported that the debris could remain for 10,000 years in the low-earth orbiting range, a popular space for satellites.

    And despite the fact, there is no immediate threat to human life as the debris is moving above the International Space Station, which is located at an altitude of 230 miles, it is apparent that greater control of moving objects and knowledge about the junk in orbit is needed.

    “Unfortunately, it appears that there was data warning about the possibility of this collision beforehand,” noted Brian Weeden, a technical consultant for the Secure World Foundation (SWF). “However, it must be stressed that close approaches between satellites somewhere in Earth orbit occurs on almost a weekly basis … and until this event, have never before resulted in an actual collision.”

    “Getting the right information to the right authorities in time to make the right avoidance maneuver decision is a very complicated process that doesn't entirely exist yet,” Weeden said. “The Secure World Foundation is working with many other organizations around the world to try and develop this process.”

    The SWF recommended the installation of an international civil space situational awareness (SSA) system as soon as possible. Ray Williamson, executive director of the SWF said that such a civil SSA system could have been used to warn the Iridium operations managers of the danger of collision and allow them to take evasive action.

    The collision of the two spacecraft on February 10 is being addressed in Vienna with SWF’s Weeden highlighting the incident during his presentation to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) Subcommittee as an example of the need for a civil space situational awareness system.