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Secure World Foundation Holds Space Debris Workshop

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by Staff Writers
Beijing, China (SPX) Oct 26, 2010
International participants from a dozen universities around the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, and Japan, along with faculty and graduate students from across China, participated in the 2010 Beijing Space Debris Mitigation Workshop, held on October 18-19 in Beijing, China.

Secure World Foundation, along with its partners at Beihang University in Beijing and International Space University in Strasbourg, France, held the 2010 Beijing Space Debris Mitigation Workshop on October 18-19.

International participants from a dozen universities around the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, and Japan, participated in the event in Beijing, along with faculty and graduate students from across China.

The threat posed by space debris to satellites and space services continues to be an urgent topic among scientists and researchers. Although significant progress has been made on reducing the creation of space debris, there is an emerging consensus that rapid, uncontrolled growth in the amount of space debris can only be prevented by actively removing debris from orbit.

Challenges ahead
Over the last year, conferences have been held in the United States, France, and Russia to discuss the challenges ahead in dealing with orbital debris.

Sessions held at the 2010 Beijing Space Debris Mitigation Workshop involved discussion on a variety of topics, such as:

+ Research into modeling and simulation of hypervelocity impacts and the potential threat posed by large numbers of small satellites in Sun-synchronous orbits.

+ The need for actively removing space debris and proposed techniques for doing so.

+ The legal and policy issues involved with space debris and potential removal from Earth orbit.

More than just one solution

In the late 1970's, two influential NASA scientists, John Gabbard and Donald Kessler, laid the scientific groundwork for what became to be known as the "Kessler syndrome."

They predicted that at some point in the future the population of human-generated space debris would hit a critical point where it would pose a greater risk to spacecraft than the natural debris population of meteoroids.

This "collisional cascading" would increase the risks and costs of operating in space, and make certain types of missions no longer cost effective or safe.

Research and modeling over the last decade has shown that even without any new space launches, the amount of debris in orbit will continue to grow in the future as large pieces of debris - such as dead satellites and spent rocket bodies - would be impacted by small pieces of debris.

This, in turn, would generate thousands of additional small debris, and increase the chances that other large objects would be vulnerable to impacts.

In the 1990's, several of the world's space agencies formed the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee to study this problem.

Their work resulted in a set of guidelines for reducing the amount of debris produced by space activities. In 2008 these voluntary guidelines were adopted by the United Nations, and currently many countries are in the process of adopting the guidelines into national regulations.

"The debris mitigation guidelines are a major accomplishment, and an important step in preserving the long-term sustainability of space," said Dr. Ray Williamson, Executive Director of Secure World Foundation. "But they are only an initial first step, and will not solve the problem by themselves."

Research done by both NASA and the European Space Agency shows that a combination of debris mitigation, collision screening and avoidance by operational satellites - as well as active debris removal - are needed to prevent collisional cascading.

Williamson added: "The questions that need to be answered now are what is the safest, most economical method for removing debris? Also, which are the highest priority objects to remove?"

The Importance of International Cooperation
In addition to the complex issues of engineering and physics, actively removing space debris raises a number of legal and policy issues as well.

"The 2010 Beijing Space Debris Mitigation Workshop underscored the importance of international dialog and cooperation on space debris among all spacefaring nations, because the problem cannot be solved by one country acting alone," said Brian Weeden, SWF Technical Advisor and one of the meeting's organizers. "It is just too expensive and too difficult to go it alone."

Existing international law reinforces this need for international cooperation, Weeden said. According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, countries that place objects in space retain jurisdiction over those objects in perpetuity.

"Satellites and space debris are like little embassies in space," Weeden added. "Currently, more than fifty countries own or operate satellites, and there are almost 22,000 pieces of debris being tracked in orbit."

Ultimate goal
From a legal standpoint, wouldn't it seem easier for each country to be responsible for removing its own debris?

Weeden said that would pose additional problems. Each country would need to develop the debris removal technology and expertise to do so, he said, and that could have serious implications.

"Unfortunately, many of the methods that work the best for removing debris also have applications for anti-satellite weapons," Weeden advised. "Figuring out how to develop the necessary technologies and perform debris removal in a way that doesn't increase tensions between countries is a major challenge."

Part of the solution to this may include transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs), specific methods of building common understanding.

At a major United Nations meeting recently held in New York City, diplomats from around the world discussed a draft proposal on TCBMs that calls for establishing a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Space Security.

SWF's Williamson said that the ultimate goal is to find ways to preserve the long-term sustainability of outer space, while increasing stability in space.

"In the words of the new U.S. National Space Policy, we need to find ways to act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust," Williamson concluded.

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