This week, the Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, of which I am a member, held a hearing to discuss the issue of space debris. Leaders at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as scholars in the field provided testimony for the subcommittee.
For those who are unaware, space debris is any man-made object within Earth’s orbit that no longer serves a useful purpose. It can range from derelict spacecrafts and pieces of satellites to screws and tiny flecks of paint. It is estimated there is more than 217,000 pieces of space debris within Earth’s orbit currently.
So why is space debris important? Well, a piece of a satellite the size of a golf ball would probably not do that much damage to a functioning satellite or a space shuttle if it hits it under normal circumstances. However, because that piece of space debris is within Earth’s orbit, it is traveling thousands of miles per hour. At such dramatically high speeds, even the smallest pieces of space debris could be problematic. For that reason, NASA is currently tracking about 9,000 objects, composed of satellites and space debris.
However, currently the United States is practically the only country tracking these pieces of debris. There are no international laws regarding countries’ responsibilities over their space debris and no US laws that require companies to be responsible for space debris created by their satellites. In addition, there is currently no viable way to clean up the space debris in the Earth’s orbit. Right now NASA and Strategic Air Command are working to prevent additional creation of space debris through prudent vehicle design and operations and is working with US companies in their voluntary adherence to measures designed to limit the growth of space debris.
The panel this week discussed those issues and how we could work to improve this problem. For more information on the hearing please visit https://science.house.gov/publications/hearings_markups_details.aspx?NewsID=2429.