Does the Earth need a space fence?

Being hit by space junk is rubbish.

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.

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

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

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.