So long and thanks for all the fish?
by Euan O’Neill
Whilst ancient astrologers used the position of the stars to tell the future and European explorers used the heavens to cross oceans and find ‘unknown’ territories, today we rely on signals from space to direct us to the nearest branch of Starbucks or to tell us the bus timetable.
The recent conference organised by the UN institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) brought together representatives of the three largest space powers; The USA, China and Russia, as well as academics, NGOs and the media. Key issues raised included the growing problem of space debris and the continuation of space free from weapons. Although the subject of space security sounds like it belongs on the agenda of the Jedi Council rather than on that of the UN, there is a well-developed sector of academics and governments studying the potential effects of man’s forays into the great unknown.
All three space superpowers declared the universal benefit of a peaceful space and the potential economic and social development that a peaceful future of space. They were praised for the rapid rate of change in disarmament in the space sector in the last twenty years. Questions were raised as to whether an international treaty was required but at least one of the big three felt that a treaty would not be practical and is not a top priority. China, the US and Russia reiterated their policy that they would not be the first to put weapons in space, although they were questioned as to why they hadn’t made a commitment to never do it.
Despite the generally positive commitments from the main space powers, some, such as space exploration expert Anatoly Zak, are worried that a peaceful future is not a forgone conclusion. In 2007, China demonstrated its military capability by using the KT-2 missiles to hit a defunct satellite. A year later, the USA targeted a satellite containing dangerous chemicals to destroy its contents. Although the US government spokesperson denied the claim vehemently, Zak suspected that the American exercise may have been partly a show of might towards the Chinese.
The discussion on space debris was led by Theresa Hitchens (UNIDIR) who laid out the scale of this problem in stark figures; a thumbnail sized piece of debris can destroy a satellite if it hits it in the right place and there are more than 10,000 known pieces of debris in orbit larger than 10cm in diameter. The problem of debris increases with each satellite launch, with debris being created inevitably. As existing satellites age the risk that they break down increases. This would create more debris, potentially sparking a catastrophic chain reaction, which would result in vast damage to our communications network.
However, there are ways to minimise the risks if the issue of space debris has its place on the political agenda. By targeting 10 very large pieces of debris in the so-called ‘collision zone’ each year the problem could be stabilised and all parties agreed that this target would be manageable and achievable. Long-term solutions to the problem include the use of magnets and lasers as well as increasing the drag of objects so that they burn up by re-entering the atmosphere. The problem with these solutions is that the technology needed to do this is ‘dual use’; as well as being useful in the global litter pick it could also be used by those with more nefarious intentions to sabotage or destroy satellites.
Other possible solutions include increasing the lifespan of satellites and developing technology such as ‘orbit fuelling’, such innovation would make it cheaper to launch satellites and could encourage more nations into space, whilst at the same time limiting the need for satellites to be replaced as technology outpaces them. Inaction would lead to declaring large swathes of space unusable, with the resulting negative consequences for science.
Currently there is no legal definition of what constitutes debris, and this makes clear up operations tricky. Current rules forbid nations from removing debris launched by another country without permission but if a clean-up of space is to occur these rules must be changed. The Swiss Space Centre Clean-mE project is developing technology to tidy up space debris with nano-satellites and this effort was praised by the conference.
As well as destroying equipment, space debris could also be the trigger for future conflict in the earth’s orbit. If a communication satellite is hit or destroyed by an object, it would be almost impossible to ascertain whether that object was something as innocent as a dropped screwdriver or a piece of Sputnik, or whether the satellite had been deliberately targeted by another spacefaring state. As space becomes more ‘crowded’ with debris and as more and more countries begin adventuring to infinity and beyond, there is a real risk that the proverbial spanner in the works could spark a global conflict.
The skies above us now provide the answers to much more than astrologers would have ever thought possible, and this reliance will only continue to grow. The international community is in a position to keep space safe and to minimise the damage of debris if space security is given a high priority on the political agenda. If not, it might be time to make our escape and follow the dolphins… (See video)