22 January 2016
Rise in space junk could provoke armed conflict say scientists
By Ian Sample
The Guardian

Fragments of spent rockets and other debris orbiting the Earth pose ‘special political danger’ of damage to satellites being misconstrued as attack

An artist’s impression from 2008 of the space debris in orbit around Earth.
Photograph: European Space Agency / Rex Feat

The steady rise in space junk that is floating around the planet could provoke a political row and even armed conflict, according to scientists, who warn that even tiny pieces of debris have enough energy to damage or destroy military satellites.

Researchers said fragments of spent rockets and other hurtling hardware posed a “special political danger” because of the difficulty in confirming that an operational satellite had been struck by flying debris and had not fallen victim to an intentional attack by another nation.

Space agencies in the US and Russia track more than 23,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10cm, but estimates suggest there could be half a billion fragments ranging from one to 10cm, and trillions of even smaller particles.

How dangerous is space debris?

The junk poses the greatest danger to satellites in low Earth orbit, where debris can slam into spacecraft at a combined speed of more than 30,000mph. This realm of space, which stretches from 100 to 1200 miles above the surface, is where most military satellites are deployed.

In a report to be published in the journal Acta Astronautica, Vitaly Adushkin at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow writes that impacts from space junk, especially on military satellites, posed a “special political danger” and “may provoke political or even armed conflict between space-faring nations. The owner of the impacted and destroyed satellite can hardly quickly determine the real cause of the accident.”

Adushkin adds that in recent decades there have been repeated sudden failures of defence satellites which have never been explained. But there are only two possibilities, he claims: either unregistered collisions with space debris, or an aggressive action by an adversary. “This is a politically dangerous dilemma,” he writes.

The warning comes after an incident in 2013 when a Russian satellite, Blits, was disabled after apparently colliding with debris created when China shot down one of its own old weather satellites in 2007. The Chinese used a missile to destroy its satellite, an act that demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities, and left 3,000 more pieces of debris in orbit.

According to the report, the amount of debris cluttering low Earth orbit has risen dramatically in half a century of spacefaring. Without efforts to clean up the space environment, Adushkin warns of a “cascade process” in which chunks of debris crash into one another and produce ever more smaller fragments.

Data in the study from the Russian space agency show that the International Space Station took evasive action five times in 2014 to avoid space debris. Even small flecks of paint that have flaked off spacecraft can be hazardous. Nasa’s space shuttle was struck by flying paint several times in orbit, forcing ground staff to replace some of the spaceship’s windows.

The report follows a report commissioned by Nasa in 2011 which warned that the level of space junk was rising exponentially, and had reached a “tipping point” in the threat it posed to satellites and the International Space Station.

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