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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496