Lawmakers position U.S. to become the galaxy’s garbage man as space trash piles up

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America took on the mantle of the world’s policeman in the 20th century and Congress is now poised to make the U.S. the galaxy’s garbage man in the 21st century.

Legislation working its way through Congress would fund the development of new capabilities to track space trash and establish a federal office to monitor the trash and other objects in space.

Advocates for a more aggressive U.S. effort on this front cite the mounting dangers of space trash. A boom of the commercial space industry and increased space exploration by other countries is cluttering the road to the final frontier with piles of space junk and traffic jams.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee’s space and science panel, said Thursday that she is comfortable being identified as the “space junk lady” because she wants the U.S. to take a lead role in developing space situational awareness, space traffic management, and space policy for earthlings to follow.

An estimated 4,000 satellites are orbiting Earth now, with 1,200 of those launched last year and more than 1,200 already launched in 2021 per Ms. Lummis. Another 46,000 new satellites are expected to flood space in the coming years.

The Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors are currently working to track 27,000 pieces of space junk, according to NASA.

“This junk poses huge risks to our assets in space,” Ms. Lummis said Thursday at a Senate hearing. “Even the smallest pieces of orbital debris, I’ve learned that even paint flecks, can cause serious damage. Each collision creates even more debris, so this is a problem that compounds on itself.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper, Colorado Democrat and chair of the space and science subcommittee, identified a 2007 Chinese weapons demonstration as leaving 3,000 debris objects hurtling through space at high speeds and a 2009 U.S. satellite collision with a Russian satellite as creating 1,800 debris objects.

As more public and private objects rush into space, Mr. Hickenlooper said the U.S. cannot afford to wait for the next collision to take action.

“On highway traffic, and I realize this is a very loose analogy, but traffic increases up to a certain point and then there is a point where things stop, accidents increase, traffic rate slows dramatically, the system begins to fall apart,” Mr. Hickenlooper said at the hearing. 

“And I think in that loose sense this is an analogy that we are rapidly approaching that point where the dramatic increases in traffic are going to wreak havoc if we don’t address them now.”

The actions Mr. Hickenlooper wants the government to take include full implementation of a space policy directive for traffic management and enacting the Space Act that recently passed the Senate as part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which focused on fostering U.S. research and development to counter China.

The Space Act’s provisions include the creation of “centers of excellence for space situational awareness” where government develops new capabilities to track space trash funded with $20 million in taxpayer money. The Space Act also authorizes another $15 million of taxpayer dollars to be spent by the Commerce Department’s director of space commerce to develop a space situational awareness program.

If the U.S. does not write the rules for space, Mr. Hickenlooper warned that the European Union, Russia, and China would overrule American interests in space traffic management.

Another force shaping space rules will be the billionaires who are devoting time and money to the space tourism industry and space colonization efforts. Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson rocketed to the edge of space earlier this month, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos this week joined the first crewed ride by his Blue Origin space company’s rocket to the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Upon return, Mr. Bezos said he intended to help “build a road to space.”

Whether Mr. Bezos’ road gets built will likely depend on governments’ willingness to entrust the risk of exploring space to Mr. Bezos and other commercial space entrepreneurs. The model for such a public-private relationship might be found in the defense sector.

“It’s very exciting. Who would have imagined that the private sector would be leading in space? Certainly when I worked on these issues in Congress 20 years [ago] nobody could have imagined it,” former Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on CNBC. “But it’s the same kind of transition the defense industry went through years ago where the government was leading it and then the private sector took over.”

To clean up space, the government will likely count on the private sector for assistance, Paul Graziani, CEO of Commercial Space Operations Center (COMSPOC Corp.), told the Senate panel.

He also warned that if the growing space trash problem is not solved soon, the low-Earth orbit would soon become “really unusable.”

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