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Does the Earth need a space fence?

Being hit by space junk is rubbish.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide on board the International Space Station. Photograph: Getty Images/NASA

Last week, NASA confirmed that the International Space Station may have to be moved or risk being hit by a sizeable lump of Russian space junk. With hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris littering the atmosphere, has our desire for space exploration inadvertently created a volatile and hazardous junkyard?

The danger was posed by defunct Russian military satellite Kosmos 2251, infamous for colliding with US satellite Iridium-33 in February 2009. The incident sent hundreds of pieces of debris spiralling out of control in Earth’s atmospheric orbit, adding to the debris currently tracked by the US Air Force.

Of course, this is an issue entirely of our own doing. Years of launching satellites without an afterthought for the abandoned rocket components have left Earth’s geostationary orbit more congested than the M25 on a Friday evening.

There is, however, a solution. Short of erecting a series of 2,000km-high concrete posts and wooden panels, NASA hopes to track objects orbiting the planet using what it has called the "Space Fence". Three radar sites, with one already chosen to be located on Kwajalein Island, part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, will help the administration track up to 200,000 pieces of debris simultaneously.

The US military’s current equivalent, the Space Surveillance Network, tracks a catalogue of 15,000-20,000 identified pieces of debris, ensuring that operators of satellites and installations are warned of potential collisions. With a burgeoning number of nations now edging towards becoming space-able this catalogue needs to be expanded, and Space Fence offers to do just that.

Not only will objects be tracked and future collisions reconstructed, but the system’s processing power will be capable of determining the best possible launch window for satellites and shuttles. Space Fence will essentially act as NASA’s very own traffic management system.

At an expected cost of $6.1bn, Space Fence represents the single largest investment from the US Air Force in Space Situational Awareness, and what is likely to become one of the most expensive clean-up jobs in history.

Liam is the aerospace and defence features writer for the NRI Digital network.