The politics of space junk

In a presentation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies today, Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for space and defense policy, gave a presentation on the space diplomacy priorities of the Obama adminsitration. 

There isn't really a formal international body or set of standards governing the international use of space, though there is increasing movement toward adopting the Space Code of Conduct put forward by the European Union as an international standard. (Notably, this is not being proposed as a binding treaty. Given the difficulty the Law of the Sea has had in the Senate, it's hard to imagine that international space law would fare much better.)

The two main priorities discussed by Rose were taking steps to avoid the weaponization fo space -- a central tenet of the space strategy document released by the White House in 2010 -- and the removal of debris from space. There are over 21,000 piece of trash that are larger than 4 inches orbiting the earth, posing a risk to satellites and even the International Space Station.

The two problems are related. Earlier this month, a piece of debris resulting from China's 2007 shootdown of a satellite -- an even that rang international alarm bells about space militarization -- collided with a Russian satellite. When something blows up in orbit, the shrapnel sticks around for a while. Unfortunately, from a diplomatic point of view, it's often hard to tell the technology that destroys space debris from the technology that destroys satellites. As Rose put it today: 

The national space policy directs the us government look at issues associated with active degree removal-that is removal of large debris in space. But I always like to point out, there are serious political technical financial and legal issues associated with that. For example, one person's debris removal system could be another person's anti-satellite weapon.

Rose also noted that the problem is only getting more urgent with new players from Brazil to India to Nigeria entering the space business. Without a set of ground rules, earth's orbit could soon get extremely crowded and extremely messy. 

NASA via Getty Images

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