In Focus Today
7:22 pm
Wed January 27, 2010

U.S. general urges world war on space debris

Boston, MA –

By Dan Williams

HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) - World powers must find ways to reduce the amount of debris in orbit, as the collision risk it poses to spacecraft is increasing, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command said on Wednesday.

Air Force General Kevin Chilton, a former astronaut, told an Israeli audience that the United States has catalogued more than 15,000 items such as jettisoned rockets, shuttle detritus, and bits of destroyed satellites currently floating in space.

"The estimation is that these numbers could grow upward of 50,000 in total numbers in the not-too-distant future," he said, adding that this could make low-earth orbit "uninhabitable to man or machine."

The amount of debris has increased exponentially, according to Chilton, due to events like China's 2007 shooting down of a defunct satellite, and last year's collision of an old Russian military satellite and a telecoms satellite owned by Iridium.

In what was widely seen as an effort to achieve parity with China, the United States in 2008 blew up a target satellite using the Aegis missile interceptor. The Aegis is now the backbone of a planned U.S. ballistic shield for Eastern Europe.

Chilton said the increasing clutter raised the specter of a "cascade" whereby debris causes collisions, which in turn creates more debris.

Chilton said major powers should agree on a "responsible space operation," improve their spacecraft to keep debris to a minimum, and share data on possible risks.

"The U.S. has quite an extensive array of sensors ... but even that is not enough," he said in his address to the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, near Tel Aviv.

"We need to improve our space surveillance capabilities."

But Chilton made clear that, for now, containment was the only option, in the absence of a means of elimination.

"Today, the way we eliminate space debris is we wait for it to come down" and burn up on reentry through the atmosphere, he said.

Chilton, whose responsibilities include ballistic missile defense and cyber warfare as well as space operations, spent three days in Israel, an aide said.

As well as visiting academic forums, he held talks with researchers at Israel's Defense Ministry, an official involved in the visit said, without giving details.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Diana Abdallah)