A great graphic from Michael Paukner on Flickr of all the world’s satellites, working and defunct, plus debris, by country. Interestingly, China and France appear to the worst litterers of space as a proportion of the amount of stuff they have up there. Russia have the most out of commission satellites and the USA (not surprisingly) have the most working devices. Of course, this graphic doesn’t distinguish civil from military, nor say what are their functions, but the sheer amount of stuff in orbit indicates why there will be serious conflict over the use of orbital space soon enough…
…it is the USA that effectively controls earth orbit. However many other emerging economies see no reason why this should be the case….
Following last week’s collision between an obsolete Russian military satellite and an US Iridium communications satellite, there has been a lot of discussion about the management of orbital space (or, more accurately, the lack of it). Orbital positions are managed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), but the effective control of orbital space is a matter of power projection – i.e.: which country can maintain a stronger and more pervasive presence in space. With the Russian program almost defunct, and European satellites limited in number, it is the USA that effectively controls earth orbit. However many other emerging economies see no reason why this should be the case. India now has a regular launch program and in particular China is massively expanding its space presence, even making noises about its ability to destroy satellites if necessary.
China seems now to be using this incident to sound out other countries and the international scientific community about a more coherent and comprehensive international management of orbital space. In an article published on the official English-language news site, Chinadaily, various senior Chinese scientists and People’s Daily journalists are quoted in favour of “establishing a system for the promotion of space safety is an important method of space traffic management”, through “long-term cooperation from the international community”, and perhaps even a “space traffic law”, although it is acknowledged that this is “still a very remote concept”.
The one organisation that is not going to like this at all is the US military. USSTRATCOM has absorbed the space power doctrine developed in the 1990s by USSPACECOM, which argued effectively that orbital space should be part of US military plans for ‘Full-Spectrum Dominance’ (FSD) and that international projects like the International Space Station would be tolerated only insofar as they could be ‘leveraged’ to US advantage. The US military wants to maintain the ‘ultimate high ground’ that dominance of earth orbit gives them, for communications, for surveillance, for weapons targeting. They are not even very keen on the EU Galileo project, the new and more technically-advanced rival to GPS (which is a US military system).
Just as with the discussion about internationalising management of the Internet and moving it beyond US government control, any suggestions of a more comprehensive international management of space are likely to be resisted even at the expense of logic and reason. The Chinese know this very well, and are being rather cleverly provocative. They are however, right.
Top story on many news channels today is the collision of a US Iridium telecommunications satellite with an obsolete Russian military satellite. Iridium is an interesting company that is almost permanently bankrupt (due to the rise of GPS-enabled mobile telephones) yet whose largest single customer is the US Department of Defense, which uses a Hawaii-based gateway for a secure network using NSA-approved handsets.
Even more interesting however is that the story mentions the obscure work of the Space Surveillance Network or SPACETRACK, formerly operated by US Space Command (USSPACECOM), now along with all of that influential body’s operations, part of US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). This global network of 25 bases using Phased-Array Radar and other tracking systems includes the RAF station at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.
SPACETRACK continually watches earth orbit for new objects, which are then added to the US space catalogue. It also tracks debris fields, which are increasing in number and becoming more of a hazard for new space craft, and therefore problems for both military and civilian communications, weather, mapping and surveillance systems. This collision would seem to have been in relatively low orbit which causes the most problems. Cleaning up earth orbit would be a very good idea, but few people seem to have any serious ideas as to how it might be done. Some even argue that such a clean-up could destroy a valuable source of historical information!