Meeting the challenge of space debris

Cesar Jaramillo Space Security

Author
Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 4 Winter 2014

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Space Security Index 2014 is the eleventh annual report on developments related to safety, sustainability, and security in outer space. The definition of space security guiding this report reflects the intent of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that outer space should remain open for all to use for peaceful purposes now and in the future:

The secure and sustainable access to, and use of, space and freedom from space-based threats.

In this context, the threat posed by space debris, the priorities of national civil space programs, the growing importance of the commercial space industry, efforts to develop a robust normative regime for outer space activities, and concerns about the militarization and potential weaponization of space are critical issues covered by Space Security Index 2014.

Today the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is using the Space Surveillance Network to track more than 20,000 pieces of debris 10 centimetres in diameter or larger. Experts estimate that there are over 300,000 objects with a diameter larger than one centimetre and several million that are smaller.

There is a growing risk that space assets may collide with one another or with a piece of orbital debris. As outer space becomes more congested, the likelihood of such events increases, making all spacecraft vulnerable, regardless of the nation or entity to which they belong.

In recent years, awareness of the space debris problem has grown considerably and significant efforts have been made to mitigate the production of new debris through compliance with national and international guidelines. Similarly, recent developments covered by the Space Security Index suggest that there is a greater willingness to share Space Situational Awareness data through international partnerships.

The use of space-based global utilities has grown substantially over the last decade. Millions of individuals rely on space applications on a daily basis for functions as diverse as weather forecasting, navigation, communications, and search-and-rescue operations.
International cooperation remains a key aspect of both civil space programs and global utilities. Collaborative endeavours in civil space programs can assist in the transfer of expertise and technology for the access to, and use of, space by emerging space actors.

International cooperation can also help nations undertake vast collaborative projects in space, such as the International Space Station, whose complex technical challenges and prohibitive costs are difficult for any one actor to assume.

The role that the commercial space sector plays in the provision of launch, communications, imagery, and manufacturing services and its relationship with government, civil, and military programs make this sector an important determinant of space security. A healthy space industry can lead to decreasing costs for space access and use, and may increase the accessibility of space technology for a wider range of space actors.

The military space sector is an important driver in the advancement of capabilities to access and use space. Many of today’s common space applications, such as satellite-based navigation, were first developed for military use. Furthermore, remote sensing satellites have served as a technical means for nations to verify compliance with international nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament regimes.

However, the use of space systems to support terrestrial military operations could be detrimental to space security if adversaries, viewing space as a new source of military threat or as critical military infrastructure, develop space system negation capabilities to neutralize the space systems of other nations.

No hostile anti-satellite (ASAT) attacks have been carried out against an adversary; however, recent incidents testify to the availability and effectiveness of missiles to destroy an adversary’s satellite. Satellite resiliency measures include system redundancy, distributed architectures, and interoperability, which have become characteristics of, for example, some satellite navigation systems.

The ability to rapidly rebuild space systems after an attack could reduce vulnerabilities in space. The capabilities to refit space systems by launching new satellites into orbit in a timely manner to replace satellites damaged or destroyed by an attack are critical resilience measures. Smaller spacecraft that may be fractionated or distributed on hosts can improve continuity of capability and enhance security through redundancy and rapid replacement of assets. While these characteristics may make attack against space assets less attractive, they can also make assets more difficult to track and could potentially hinder transparency in space activities.

The Space Security Index recognizes that the existing normative framework for outer space activities is insufficient to address the current challenges facing the outer space domain.

International instruments that regulate space activities have a direct effect on space security because they establish key parameters for acceptable behaviour in space. International space law, as well as valuable unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures can make space more secure by regulating activities that may infringe upon the ability of actors to access and use space safely and sustainably, and by limiting space-based threats to national assets in space or on Earth.

While there is widespread international recognition that the existing regulatory framework is insufficient to meet the current challenges facing the outer space domain, the development of an overarching normative regime has been slow. Space actors have been unable to reach consensus on the exact nature of a space security regime, although specific alternatives have been presented.

Proposals include both legally binding treaties, such as the proposed Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (known as the PPWT), and politically binding norms, such as the proposed International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. The latest revised versions of each of these proposals were made public during 2014 and are included as annexes to the 2014 SSI report.

Space Security Index 2014 includes a brief Global Assessment analysis, which is intended to provide a broad analysis of the trends, priorities, highlights, breaking points, and dynamics that are shaping current space security discussions. The author of the current assessment is James Clay Moltz, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Expert participation in the Space Security Index is a key component of the project. The primary research is peer-reviewed prior to publication through various processes. For example, the Space Security Working Group in-person consultation is held each spring for two days to review the draft text for factual errors, misinterpretations, gaps, and misstatements. This meeting also provides an important forum for related policy dialogue on recent developments in outer space.

For further information about the Space Security Index, its methodology, project partners, and sponsors, please visit www.spacesecurityindex.org, where the report can be downloaded in PDF format.

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