U.S. no longer the only traffic cop in space - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 7:12 am
Sharing crucial data
U.S. no longer the only traffic cop in space

Part of the U.S. Strategic Command's job is to keep spacecraft from crashing into the tens of thousands of bits of space junk floating around the Earth. Now it's getting some help from other countries.

StratCom's commander, Gen. Robert Kehler, signed “space situational awareness” agreements this spring with U.S. allies Japan and Australia. The pacts will make it easier and faster for StratCom to swap information to help satellites and spacecraft avoid the orbiting detritus from 56 years of space travel. StratCom leaders hope more nations will follow suit.

“It's important for us to preserve the space domain,” said Col. Lina Cashin, chief of StratCom's policy and doctrine division, which is negotiating the agreements. “We need to rely on our partners and allies.”

Col. Lina Cashin

Until 2004, space-faring nations mostly launched rockets with fingers crossed that the vastness of space would protect them from being hit by others' orbiting debris.

“We had the big-sky theory, that there was a lot of room in space,” Cashin said.

Amid rising fears about space junk, the Air Force launched a pilot project and created a website — www.space-track.org — to provide data on those objects circling the planet that are roughly of baseball size or larger. At the time there were about 10,400.

The next few years showed how severe the problem could become. In 2007 the Chinese conducted a test, firing a missile to shoot down an old weather satellite. That created nearly 3,400 cataloged chunks of junk, according to data from NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office. Some of that junk is expected to orbit for up to 100 years.

Then, two years later, came the disaster that space scientists had feared. An active Iridium satellite from Motorola collided with an inactive Russian Cosmos weather satellite. The crash created another 2,100 pieces of space debris.

“That was a wake-up call,” said Yool Kim, a national security policy researcher who studies space issues for the RAND Corp. “These two events made everyone realize that space is becoming increasingly congested.”

The Air Force's tracking program hadn't foreseen the collision. At the time, Cashin said, the U.S. military kept watch over spacecraft carrying people, or those belonging to the Defense Department and other U.S. government agencies. It didn't cover dormant payloads such as Cosmos or commercial spacecraft like Iridium.

When StratCom took over the Air Force's experimental website in late 2009 it expanded the program to cover all active spacecraft and added more spaceflight-safety services.

Through a network of sensors around the world, StratCom's Joint Space Operations Center — which goes by the acronym JSpOC — now monitors more than 17,000 space objects. Between 20 and 30 times a day, Cashin said, the space operations center issues alerts if it forecasts two of the objects are about to collide. Actual collisions remain rare.

Still, there are close calls. In 2011, astronauts in the International Space Station had only 14 hours' warning to take shelter in their Soyuz “lifeboat” capsules after an unidentified piece of space junk passed within about 800 feet of the station. Last year they took shelter again when a chunk of debris from the Iridium-Cosmos crash passed uncomfortably close.

What scientists fear is that low-Earth orbit will become too crowded for safe launches because of the increasing space flotsam created by collisions. Because of the speed at which objects move in space — up to 17,500 miles per hour — even tiny pieces of junk can badly damage spacecraft.

“Even if it's a small object, you're talking about a lot of momentum,” Kim said.

More groups than ever are launching into space. At least 14 nations and more than 40 international groups and private entities have objects in orbit.

“There are new entrants every day,” Cashin said.

Playing traffic cop in space has become a job too big for the United States on its own.

So Congress in 2009 authorized the sharing of “space situational awareness” data outside the government. StratCom received authority to reach data-sharing agreements with private companies and international groups that launch into space. Later it was authorized to negotiate directly with foreign governments.

Besides the agreements with Japan and Australia, Cashin said, StratCom has completed 37 agreements with international groups and companies. At no charge, StratCom agrees not only to share up-to-the-minute data on space junk, but offers extra assistance during launch and re-entry, during an emergency, or when a satellite is nearing the end of its life.

“We're trying to make it more useful for our partners,” Cashin said.

Those partners, of course, must also make their data available to StratCom.

“It's all about sharing information,” Kim said. “The end goal is to try and obtain a stable and safe environment.”

Still, the prospect of data swapping raises alarms in some quarters. They warn that the United States should make certain it doesn't give up its rights to operate freely in space — or its secrets — in the name of transparency.

“The U.S. always overcomplies with agreements while others undercomply,” said Michaela Dodge, a space and defense policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The magical belief that the U.S. will set an example and others will follow — that's just mythology.”

Dodge agrees that space debris poses a growing danger to space commerce.

“Information sharing may be OK as long as you protect your intelligence,” she said. “I'm not saying it's not good. It's just that we have to be very, very cautious.”

Cashin said StratCom isn't spilling any secrets. All of the information it shares is unclassified.

“It behooves us to be safe and responsible,” she said. “This data has been already out in the public domain.”

StratCom won't say what other countries are in the running. Kim said it's logical to guess that the nations with which the U.S. already has space agreements — Canada, Great Britain, France — may sign on next.

It's agreed, though, that simply sharing what's known about space junk won't stop the threat. The Air Force Space Command has projected the amount of debris will triple by 2030.

The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is already beginning to study super-high-tech ways of cleaning up space, such as zapping orbiting debris with ground-based lasers or deploying space ships with giant nets to scoop it up.

But with those solutions still at the outer edge of sci-fi fantasy, the answer for now appears to be for those who launch into space to talk to each other so that it is easier for them to see and avoid the debris.

“They're trying to attack the problem as a (space-faring) community,” Kim said. “Strategically, it's definitely a right step.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1186, steve.liewer@owh.com

Contact the writer: Steve Liewer

steve.liewer@owh.com    |   402-444-1186

Steve is the military affairs reporter for The World-Herald.

Read more related stories
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast ‘political expediency’ as foes hail ruling to delay decision
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Man, 21, shot in ankle while walking near 30th, W Streets
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs, police say
Dems criticize governor hopeful Beau McCoy's ad in which he strikes a Barack Obama doll
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
< >
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »