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Space debris is a problem, say world experts

Space debris experts from around the world gathered at the European Space Agency Operations Centre (ESOC) earlier in October for the 17th meeting of the inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). IADC is concerned with all technical issues of the space debris pro...
Space debris experts from around the world gathered at the European Space Agency Operations Centre (ESOC) earlier in October for the 17th meeting of the inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). IADC is concerned with all technical issues of the space debris problem. It mainly aims to promote the exchange of knowledge acquired from research focusing on space debris and cooperation in research activities. This way, ESA hopes to identify ways of reducing or preventing pollution in space.

Since the last European conference on space debris in 1997, the number and mass of debris in the Earth's orbit has kept growing - despite a decreasing annual launch rate - says ESA. The organisation has also recently announced its concern that the impact of space debris on the plethora of communications satellites launched in recent years is unknown. Both the ERS-1 and SPOT 2 satellites had to perform evasive manoeuvres in the last few years to avoid colliding with what is essentially now 'rubbish', previously launched from Earth, ESA reveals. In the early days of space exploration, scientists were concerned that spacecraft might collide with meteorites, yet this problem is now viewed as relatively negligible when compared with the probability of bumping into left-overs from previous missions.

Currently about 8700 man-made objects are being tracked in orbit, of which only about 600 to 700 are operational satellites. But a major problem is that researchers have no idea of just how much 'uncatalogued' debris is floating in space now, particularly since parts of 'upper stages of space rockets, previously believed to burn up completely during entry into the denser atmosphere of earth, were found on Texan soil in 1997.

'In order to avoid an unacceptable degradation of the space environment, stronger measures have to be considered, such as selective deorbiting of upper stages and spacecraft after mission completion' says ESA. 'In space the bigger the object and the longer it stays there, the greater the chance of it being hit by orbiting debris. There is approximately a 4% chance that during its 17-year life-time, the Hubble space telescope will be severely damaged by a collision with space debris larger than one centimetre.' However, the hazard posed by space debris to people and property on the ground is extremely small, says ESA.

Space debris clearly needs to be controlled then: But how? Firstly, says ESA, as on the ground, efforts must be made to protect the space environment by focusing on the prevention of space debris. Cleaning up the space environment is 'unrealistic' says ESA because of the high speed with which this matter moves in space.

The conference participants discussed ways that prevention of space debris might be achieved and considered regulations or legal texts that might provide outlines for controls. 'Existing space law does not address space debris in an explicit manner', ESA said. 'Current growth reduction measures will lead at best to a stabilisation of the growth of debris population. More efficient measures will be needed, (for example) selective deorbiting of spacecraft and rocket stages at completion of their mission'.

ESA now hopes that the results from this IADC meeting will provide a technical basis for discussions on space debris at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS).

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