The targeting by missile of a failed U.S. intelligence-gathering spacecraft now orbiting Earth spotlights a number of associated policy issues, from dealing with the growing problem of orbital debris and the need to establish space traffic control measures, to defusing concerns over the weaponization of space.
Officials at the Secure World Foundation have flagged the missile strike of the rogue spacecraft as a reminder of the need to preserve and protect the global commons of space for the benefit of all nations.
The out-of-control imaging spacecraft -- NROL-21, cataloged as USA 193 – was lofted for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in December 2006. The classified satellite was trouble-plagued shortly after reaching orbit.
The bus-sized satellite carries an unused reserve of now-frozen hydrazine which is toxic. That is reason enough, according to U.S. military planners, to attempt an intercept of the errant spacecraft that could shower populated areas with the fuel.
Sending the wrong message
The United States Government is to be commended for notifying the world in advance about its intentions to shoot down a falling satellite with a ballistic missile, noted Ray Williamson, Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation.
“This announcement demonstrates openness about a sensitive subject that is appropriate to a democratic society,” Williamson said, “something that has been missing in some instances in the past. I look forward to additional details about this event and further explanation of the rationale for the spacecraft intercept.”
However, Williamson added: “I fear that using a ballistic missile in this manner after the United States roundly chastised the Chinese government for its anti-satellite (ASAT) test just over a year ago sends completely the wrong message to the world community.”
“The U.S. action looks very much like an anti-satellite test and represents an escalation of tensions over the use of weapons against orbiting objects. In conducting this operation, U.S. Air Force officials will sharpen their knowledge about using missiles to destroy low-Earth orbit satellites. Therefore, this missile intercept can be seen as a significant test of technology,” Williamson said. “It also gives validity to what some observers have long speculated - that the U.S. missile defense program is just a few steps away from a de facto ASAT system, using the same sensors, missiles, and launch platforms.”
The U.S. rationale for the missile strike of the satellite is suspect, Williamson suggested.
“U.S. officials claim it is to protect the populace from potential damage because the satellite carries a large amount of hydrazine propellant, a liquid that, if inhaled, can do serious damage to the lungs. However, the percentage of populated versus unpopulated area is extremely small and the chances of damage to life or property similarly small. Larger satellites with hydrazine, albeit in smaller amounts, have fallen in an uncontrolled manner before from orbit with no damage to human life and minimal property damage,” he pointed out.
“The falling satellite brings up issues that demonstrate many unanswered questions,” stated Cynda Collins-Arsenault, President of the Secure World Foundation, headquartered in Superior, Colorado. “What are the proper uses of space? Where will disputes be settled? What happens when mistakes are made…and how will we know what’s where in space?”
Collins-Arsenault noted that there has been a gradual development of the rule of law for Earth [i.e., international law], but not yet for space. “It is made even more complicated by the global impact and physical characteristics of space. All the more reason to start thinking now of ways to create the secure and sustainable use of outer space,” she emphasized.
Graveyard of space junk
Outer space is a graveyard of spent rocket stages, dead or dying satellites, and countless bits of human-made orbital flotsam.
There are some 17,000-plus objects that are being tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. According to the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for the past 45 years, the average number of cataloged object reentries has been one per day.
That rate varies from about three per day for solar maximum – a period of time when the Sun exhibits its greatest activity in an 11-year solar cycle that can increase the frictional drag on satellites in low Earth orbit, degrading their orbits and causing satellites to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere sooner than expected. During solar minimum, the average number of cataloged object reentries is about one every three days.
According to the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Studies in El Segundo, California, some debris from reentering objects do survive the plunge and can strike the Earth. Certain materials, those with high melting points -- such as stainless steel, titanium and glass -- are more likely to survive reentry than are materials with low melting points.
Due to the classified nature of the NROL-21and its design, an assessment of what parts of the satellite could possibly reach the Earth has not been made publicly available.
Phil Smith, Assistant Director for Research and Plans for Secure World Foundation, sees the need for dealing with the increasingly crowded orbits above Earth.
“The NRO satellite saga is one that highlights the need for real-time or near real-time monitoring of the volume of space surrounding the Earth…even out to the Moon as the U.S. and other countries build up a robust presence there over time.”
Smith added that the reentering satellite also leads to the conclusion that air traffic control and space traffic control will need to be unified - or at least highly coordinated disciplines.
“Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a multilayered, international aerospace management system that will ultimately handle crewed and robotic space traffic, orbital reentry profiles, commercial air traffic, and the anticipated proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles,” Smith suggested.
The vision of the Secure World Foundation is to promote secure, sustainable and enforceable agreements that preserve and protect the global space commons.
The Secure World Foundation is calling for international steps toward establishing effective governance of space, including the curbing of menacing orbital debris while encouraging space traffic management, and cultivating the opportunity to utilize space for the benefit of all humankind.
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