A growing amount of debris in outer space is becoming a top threat to humankind’s efforts to explore the solar system, and at least a portion of the space junk has been created by nefarious activities, according to NASA’s chief. China in particular has been singled out for a 2007 space test that resulted in thousands of needless pieces of debris lingering in Earth’s near orbit.
Jim Bridenstine, the newly appointed administrator of NASA, testified on June 22 before a joint hearing held by the House Joint Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and Subcommittee on Space. Bridenstine was joined by General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, to discuss “space situational awareness,” the understanding of the environment of outer space that is essential for the success of U.S. space activities.
The U.S. Department of Defense currently observes well over 20,000 pieces of space debris circling the Earth, many of which are softball-sized or larger, according to Ross’ statement. The risk of colliding with these objects poses a growing threat to satellites and other human presence in space, such as the International Space Station.
“Should we punish nations or countries that cause space debris? It’s one thing to use carrots, but should we also use sticks?” asked Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who said that a large percentage of today’s debris is the result of just two historical collisions, which in turn created a chain reaction as pieces of debris collided with each other over time, making even more new debris.
In response, Bridenstine said that nations are responsible for what they do in space according to the Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed by more than a hundred countries since 1967. Currently however, there is no mechanism to hold them accountable even if they break the rules.
“Unfortunately if you look back through history, some nefarious activities have happened in space,” said Bridenstine. “We talked about the 2007 anti-satellite missile launch by China that hit one of their own weather satellites, that created a [space] debris field that is thousands of pieces. We are still dealing with it today in lower orbit.”
Bridenstine was referring to an incident in January 2007, when China launched an anti-satellite missile to destroy its own weather satellite, creating 3,000 trackable pieces of space debris. The debris field is expected to remain for decades. At the time the Chinese regime was widely condemned by the international community for this act.
There is yet to be a workable solution to reduce or mitigate the growing debris, and the growing competition in space between great powers might make the matter even worse down the road, especially for the United States.
Hyten said both China and Russia have invested an enormous amount of national treasure into building space capabilities for the sole purpose of countering the United States.
When Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) inquired where U.S. advantages in space are being challenged, Hyten said he could not discuss the details of these technologies, but he could confirm that China and Russia are building both ground-based capability and space-based capability.
“Our [current] advantages are so huge, enormous, and powerful, the capabilities they have can’t impact us today, but we have to make sure 10-20 years from now on that is still the same, and that is the challenge,” Hyten said.