Orbital debris is a space environmental problem. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Orbital debris is a space environmental problem.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

The U.S. military currently tracks more than 17,000 objects in space on a continuous basis. Some 1,100 of that number are active satellites currently conducting operations.

Air Force Maj. Gen. David D. Thompson, U.S. Strategic Command’s director of plans and policy at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, said the release of new high-quality positional information on space debris of an unknown origin will help owner-operators better protect their satellites from these objects and ultimately create less space debris.

Many public, private, commercial and other governmental organizations conduct space operations.

Chunk of junk zips by the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Chunk of junk zips by the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

Responsible and safe use of space

There are roughly 16,000 objects — the ones not active and/or of unknown origin in space — that military space trackers are most concerned with.

“Space is not owned by anyone, it is used by all and we strongly support responsible and safe use of space and transparency of operations that go on in space,” Thompson said in a Department of Defense press statement.

One hand-slapping incident, however, is the 2007 test by China of an anti-satellite weapon. That Chinese test almost immediately created 1,500 new objects that pose a risk to satellites in orbit, Thompson said.

What response is needed for dealing with debris is, literally, up for grabs.

Reversing congestion and pollution in space, Thompson said, is a complex task.

Dealing with debris is a cottage industry of concepts. Credit: JAXA

Dealing with debris is a cottage industry of concepts.
Credit: JAXA

“We are talking decades or centuries before the environment will clean itself naturally so we have to share and act responsibly with this precious resource because it’s important to all of us,” Thompson said.

2 Responses to “Clutter Control: Objects of Unknown Origin”

  • jim oberg says:

    I’m skeptical about the caption of the piece of space junk zipping past the space station. Even in nearby orbits, non-ISS-related objects would have humongous angular rates and would show up, if at all, as a faint streak. Last I’d heard, all crew attempts to actually observe near-flyby events of largish objects, all have failed. What did the NASA caption on that shot actually say? Aside from arriving and departing visitors, there is stuff manually deployed or accidentally dropped, but they don’t “zip past”.

  • jim oberg says:

    On closer examination, it looks like the blanket Jerry Ross dropped on STS-88, which decayed within a day. That’s my guess.

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