US Takes New Step to Bring Rule of Law to Space

April 18, 2018 Updated: April 18, 2018

In late March, the world nervously waited to see where Tiangong-1, a defunct Chinese space station, would crash land on Earth. Luckily, most of the craft burned up during re-entry, with the remaining parts falling safely into the South Pacific on April 1.

No one was harmed in the incident, but space debris do pose a significant danger to humans. NASA is tracking more than 19,000 objects orbiting Earth, but there are many more left unobserved. The objects tracked by NASA include roughly 1,500 active satellites, thousands of inactive satellites, and meteor or asteroid chunks.

The debris range in size from a fleck of paint, to a basketball, to the International Space Station (which is the size of a football field). When it comes to space debris, it’s speed, not size, that matters.

“These [objects] are traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, so if you get a piece the size of a fingernail clipping, it can do damage,” Art Harman, director of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration, said. “A big piece can do incredible damage. It could put a bullet hole in the space station.”

As commercial space flight becomes more common, the number of objects orbiting Earth is expected to increase—and so will the danger. To combat the threat, Vice President Michael Pence announced on April 16 that the National Space Council is developing the first comprehensive space traffic management policy to manage space debris.

“President Trump knows a stable and orderly space environment is critical to the strength of our economy and the resilience of our security systems,” Pence said during his remarks at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The new policy will direct the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness, based on a catalog compiled by the Department of Defense that both public and private companies can use. The move will allow the military to focus on protecting and defending national security assets in space, not just counting them.

The U.S. military relies heavily on GPS satellites for guiding missiles flying drones, and coordinating troop movements. Harman said that in a worse-case scenario, a foreign enemy could destroy America’s GPS satellites, which would not only knock out communications on the ground, but create billions of pieces of space junk. That many debris would make it impossible to launch anything into space.

“It could render space essentially useless,” Harman said.

This threat was shown before the world’s eyes in January 2007, when China launched a missile to destroy its own weather satellite, creating 3,000 trackable pieces of space debris. The field of debris, which is located in the best polar orbit for weather and climate satellites, is expected to remain for decades.

Pence said the new policy will also encourage the commercial space industry to partner with the government to develop data-sharing systems, technical guidelines, and safety standards domestically. Since the United States isn’t the only space-faring nation, Pence said he wants to see the policy promoted internationally to help reduce debris and avoid future satellite collisions.

“Under this new policy, we will preserve the integrity of our critical space assets and foster an orbital environment where American space companies can propel our nation to new heights and greatness for generations to come,” Pence said.

This marks the third policy initiative from the National Space Council since it was reinstated in June 2017, after being disbanded in 1993. The first, Space Policy Directive 1, was signed by President Donald Trump in mid-December. The directive puts a focus on sending Americans back to the Moon next, rather than directly to Mars. It was backed by a $21 billion budget for NASA.

The second focused on streamlining regulations for commercial space operations to make it less cumbersome. The reforms are to be led jointly by the Commerce and Transportation departments. Trump has not signed this new policy, but is expected to do so soon, according to Pence.