Military to Congress: Help Us Avoid ‘Gravity II’

The Pentagon’s space commanders want help tracking the type of space trash that threatens rockets and satellites.

Lead 'Gravity' acress Sandra Bullock — whose character was nearly killed by rogue space debris — arrives on the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards.
National Journal
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Alex Brown
March 12, 2014, 12:43 p.m.

If Amer­ica wants to re­tain its space dom­in­ance, it will have to in­vest in track­ing the debris that has made Earth’s or­bit in­creas­ingly hard to nav­ig­ate, mil­it­ary of­fi­cials told a Sen­ate pan­el Wed­nes­day.

“This is a very ser­i­ous prob­lem, and I’ve seen noth­ing yet that will be tech­nic­ally vi­able for act­ive debris re­mov­al,” said Gen. Wil­li­am Shelton, who heads the Air Force Space Com­mand. As a res­ult, “we need bet­ter cap­ab­il­ity to track,” he told the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vice’s Sub­com­mit­tee on Stra­tegic Forces.

Shelton touted the Space Fence, a radar sys­tem de­signed to spot tiny pieces of debris and act as a first-warn­ing sys­tem for col­li­sions and oth­er out­er-space events. Se­quest­ra­tion shut down the cur­rent Space Fence, but the Air Force hopes to have a new and im­proved radar de­ployed in the Mar­shall Is­lands by 2018.

“Con­ges­tion and debris in space is a real is­sue,” ad­ded Douglas Lov­erro, the deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of De­fense for space policy. “Pro­grams like the Air Force’s Space Fence are aimed at re­du­cing that risk.”

In ad­di­tion, Shelton talked up debris-track­ing satel­lites that will help give a clear­er pic­ture of low-Earth or­bit. Along with bet­ter track­ing, con­tin­ued use of space will de­pend on coun­tries be­ing more re­spons­ible about leav­ing debris, Shelton said, de­scrib­ing a night­mare scen­ario in which “debris be­gets debris.”