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A Code Of Conduct For Space

Dodging Junk In Orbit

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A Code Of Conduct For Space

Explorer 1 lifts off on January 31, 1958, America's first entry into the space "congestion" race.

Photo courtesy NASA/JPL
Updated May 15, 2013

The United States is calling for an "International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities." On January 17, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. is joining with the European Union to develop the Code.

"A Code of Conduct will help maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, stability, and security of space by establishing guidelines for the responsible use of space," said Clinton.

It sounds cool, but the code is more about space "congestion" than spaceflight and exploration.

Background of Space Activity

The U.S. State Department reports that, to date, roughly 22,000 objects that are large enough to track are orbiting the Earth. Of that number 1,100 of those are active satellites. On top that, the State Department estimates that probably "hundreds of thousands" of smaller objects hurtle around the Earth, all with the capability of hitting and damaging satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).

Mankind entered the space-faring era in 1957 when the Soviet Union successfully placed in orbit the first Sputnik satellite. The United States followed four months later, on January 31, 1958, with the launch of Explorer 1.

Manned spaceflight began in 1961 when the Soviets, again beating the United States to the punch, put cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in orbit. Later that year, the U.S. put astronaut Alan Shepard in space, but in a shorter, sub-orbital mission.

Since then the litany of missions -- manned and unmanned -- into space is great: Mercury, Vostock, Voskhod, Gemini, Apollo, Luna, Skylab, Space Shuttle, to name a few.

Obviously, communication and observance satellites are built to go into orbit and stay there, although perhaps not indefinitely.

In 1979, the American Skylab, in space since 1973, fell out of orbit. It fall prompted global anxiety and the hit Electric Light Orchestra song "Don't Bring Me Down." Skylab littered pieces over western Australia -- much of it in Esperance -- and the Indian Ocean in July 1979.

In September 2011, anxiety peaked again as NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) suffered a deteriorating orbit. Parts that survived reentry crashed in the Pacific Ocean, although NASA could not say where. Even more recently, in January 2012, Russia's failed Mars craft Phobos-Grunt fell back to Earth.

While objects in degrading orbits are certainly dangerous, those little items -- ranging from lost wrenches and cameras to bolts and metal shards from separating rocket stages -- are the most dangerous.

An article at The Guardian's Datablog explains that objects colliding in space are usually traveling from 10km to 16km per second; that's 6.2 to 9.2 miles per second. A collision at that speed could endanger the lives of space explorers, or kill communication satellites causing phone, cellular, and internet usage to fail on Earth.

Protecting Information Systems

"These systems allow the free flow of information across platforms that open up our global markets, enhance weather forecasting and environmental monitoring, and enable global navigation and transportation," said Clinton. "Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us."

Neither Clinton nor the State Department have said just how we should clean up space or dodge all that debris, just that we need to do it by adopting "guidelines for responsible behavior to reduce the hazards of debris-generating events and increase the transparency of operations in space to avoid the danger of collisions.

Clinton added that the U.S. would not make any agreements that hinders its own space or defense activities.

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