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Satellite Collision Triggers Calls For Space Traffic Regulations

General James Cartwright, the U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it will take a month or two for the debris to settle down before they can effectively track it. NASA officials believe that the debris will probably not pose a threat to the space shuttle that is scheduled to be launched later this month. Image courtesy RIA Novosti.
by Staff Writers
Beijing, China (XNA) Feb 19, 2009
The U.S.-Russian satellite collision not only caused a disturbance to the outer space, but also helped to arouse concern among space explorers about such accidents. The whole world has been reflecting on the inefficiency of existing space surveillance systems and has been calling for the introduction of new "space traffic regulations."

Different opinions and arguments
Editor: Why did the existing monitoring system fail to prevent this collision?

Guan Kejiang (People's Daily U.S. correspondent): The Pentagon admitted that the capabilities of US military's space surveillance are limited. It cannot supervise the movement of all objects in space and had made errors in calculations. Elizabeth Mailander, a spokesperson for US' Iridium Satellite LLC, said that they did not receive any prior warning. In addition, since the warnings they had previously received were not precise enough and there were too many satellites changing direction in orbit, they failed to avoid the threat.

Yu Hongjian (People's Daily Russia correspondent): Russian space expert Igor Lisov explained that Russia's Kosmos-2251 satellite has stopped functioning as early as 1995. In contrast, the US Iridium 33 satellite was in normal working condition and its operational orbit could be controlled and adjusted. Lisov speculates that the US monitoring network was only paying attention to smaller space debris and ignored the larger defunct "dead satellites".

Li Yan (People's Daily France correspondent): Philippe Goudy, deputy director of France's space center in Toulouse, thinks that the cause might have been careless monitoring by US operators. They had really underestimated the "destructive power" of flying debris in outer space.

Debris not to be ignored
Editor: This collision has brought new pressure to outer space traffic which was already congested enough. At present, how much space debris is there and how has it dispersed following the collision?

Guan Kejiang: General James Cartwright, the U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it will take a month or two for the debris to settle down before they can effectively track it. NASA officials believe that the debris will probably not pose a threat to the space shuttle that is scheduled to be launched later this month.

Yu Hongjian: Major General Alexander Yakushin, chief of staff for the Russian military's Space Forces, said that the debris may be scattered over altitudes from 500 to 1,300 kilometers above the earth, traveling at speeds of around 200 meters per second. Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, former commander of the International Space Station, thinks that the debris does not pose any immediate threat to the International Space Station currently, but after it is affected by gravity and changes orbit, it "will certainly threaten the ISS".

Calls for information sharing
Editor: With the increase of space debris, although monitoring systems of relevant countries are running on full power, debris monitoring and surveillance still require collaborative efforts from the international community. What are the reactions of the various parties involved?

Guan Kejiang: Cartwright has said that the satellite collision accident demonstrates that all countries should improve the sharing of space information. In the future, countries should better exchange satellite orbit data with each other. US State Department spokesperson Rob McInturff said that all countries with interests in outer space should mutually cooperate in order to avoid similar accidents. Relevant parties in the US and Russia have already made contact. During the investigation process, U.S. and Russian experts may arrange further meetings.

Li Yan: On February 13, Mazlan Othman, director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, called upon member countries and international organizations to fully implement the "IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines". He said the implementation of these guidelines will help protecting the environment in outer space and that the guidelines were written bearing in mind the interests of mankind. This organization will hold a seminar in Austria in the near future, inviting scientists to put forward suggestions for preventing space collisions.

Urgent need for improvements in management
Editor: Strengthening space surveillance has become a hot topic among various parties since the collision. What are experts' comments?

Pang Zhihao (researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology): In outer space, except for geostationary orbits, whose orbital slots are allocated to all countries and managed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), spacecrafts and their space waste are barely regulated. At most, they are separately monitored by individual countries whose data are rarely shared.

Establishing a system for the promotion of space safety is an important method of space traffic management. Yet few companies or countries have invested the corresponding resources in this area. Currently, participants from scientific and research institutions, multinational companies to satellite observation stations have collected large amounts of necessary data on space safety. However, the difficulty lies in how to integrate these various types of resources and make them mutually compatible. In addition, copyrights and commercial confidentiality must be taken into consideration. The basic principle on enacting space traffic regulations is how to "avoid" space debris and spacecrafts that are under "surveillance". Detailed study of the space environment and space forecasts should have the highest priority in establishing scientific space traffic regulations. There is still a long way to go before international conventions regarding space traffic rules can be met. In general, the monitoring and prevention of space debris requires a long-term cooperation from the international community.

Du Heng (researcher at the Center for Space Science and Applied Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences): Seeing the increase of spacecraft and space debris, people have been calling for the adoption of space traffic management since the 1990s. The latest satellite collision will definitely trigger a new round of concern and discussions. It is noteworthy that over 90 percent of space objects are debris, while operational spacecrafts account for less than 10 percent. We can only control these spacecrafts, yet their movements are not as controllable as those of a car, which responds quickly. Therefore, the concept of "traffic lights" must be abandoned. Current discussions mainly focus on the technical level of space surveillance, while "space traffic law" is still a very remote concept.

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Satellite traffic control system urged
Vienna (UPI) Feb 18, 2009
Last week's collision of U.S. and Russian satellites has prompted the call for creation of an International Civil Space Situational Awareness system.

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