January 20, 2012
By Andrei Kislyakov
In the way of accidents in space that have been growing in number in a scary way there appears to be rising a sound international barrier. On January 17, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US are ready to join Europe in order to work out an International Code of Conduct in Space.
Up until now the USA avoided binding themselves with any commitments regarding the rules of conduct in the near space. But today it looks like the famous American pragmatic approach took over. The modern world is a world of space. It is hard to imagine any country functioning without space technologies. Television, radio broadcasting, and naturally the Internet are impossible without telecommunication satellites. The world’s transportation network is 100% dependent on space navigation. Speaking of military defense, the military doctrines of the world leaders include space programs.
This specific explanation of the new American approach to space was voiced in the Secretary of State’s statement mentioned above. According to most conservative estimates, there are over a thousand of operational space equipment in the near space right now. The great majority of them – over 500 belong to the US. At the same time the amount of space trash has grown completely out of proportion. The NASA report prepared last fall cites some truly worrisome figures. There are 12851 large objects in the Earth’s orbit of which 3190 are operational or broken satellites as well as 9661 rocket stages and other trash. There are over 200 000 pieces of space trash the in the 1 to 10 centimeter range while the number of objects below 1 cm can exceed dozens of million. At the same time, even objects 1 cm in diameter can be critically dangerous for satellite systems and the International Space Station. Thus, the US Secretary of State is paying such close attention to the issue of conduct in space for a good reason. Now Americans are ready to join the European Union in its work on the Code of Conduct.
Back in 2007-2008 Europe came up with a draft code that included a compilation of voluntary norms covering all types of space activity besides the disarmament process. The draft was presented in Geneva in 2009 – right after the collision of the broken Russian satellite with its working counterpart from the US – a military communications satellite of the Irridium family. That incident added no less than 800 units of space trash, which in its turn way below the Chinese testing of its anti-satellite weapons n 2007 that added 2400 units of space trash. The main purpose of the future code will be measures to fight the build-up of space trash.
At present there are only two serious ways of preventing trash build-up in the near space. One of them is the removal of carrier rocket stages from the Earth’s orbit by utilizing the fuel left in their tanks. The second method would be moving obsolete spacecraft to the higher orbits for “burial”. According to expert estimates, the term of life of such spacecraft in those orbits can exceed 200 years.
Nonetheless, Americans remained true to themselves in the key issue, which presents a real threat not only to mankind’s space activity, but also to the world security as a whole. The issue in question is the militarization of the outer space. It was no accident that Mrs. Clinton was very clear in her statement that the US would not join the Code if it in any way impairs defense capabilities of the US or its allies,
America has been declining all of the Russian and Chinese initiatives on the prevention of space militarization. In 2001 the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested working on an all-inclusive treaty on non-deployment of any type of weapons in outer space, on non-use of military power against objects in outer space, as well as putting a moratorium on any deployment of weapons in outer space until such treaty is signed. (China, however, got the US specialists seriously worried a few years ago by successfully destroying a target satellite from its surface).
It is unlikely that this point of view of Moscow and Beijing would be appreciated in the US. Ever since Regan’s “Star Wars” times America views the outer space as a war theater. Today the US military space program is specifically oriented towards the development and deployment of attack space systems. It includes the programs to develop a hypersonic “air-to-space” bomber as well as the missile defense program. The latter being fully deployed would be impossible without the outer space element in the form of combat satellite systems and supporting equipment.
Thus, the Code on space accidents needs to have a massive chapter added prohibiting the weaponization of space. But that is what Mrs. Clinton refused to talk about.
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