An urgent national threat -- from space

The movie is a hair-raising piece of entertainment – and isn’t far-fetched. Space debris presents a serious danger to modern life, posing a threat to everything from cell-phone service to national defense. At a time when space junk is proliferating, America’s satellites are more vulnerable than ever to damaging collisions.

That's why the non-partisan Space Foundation hosted a panel discussion on Capitol Hill yesterday, October 8, to discuss space situational awareness – that is, the ability to track natural and manmade objects in orbit. Improving our capabilities here is essential for protecting American satellites.

Outside the Earth’s atmosphere, human beings haven’t been very good about picking up after themselves. More than half a century of satellite launches, moon shots, and space stations have left a growing collection of space debris – by some estimates, over 500,000 pieces in all.

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This space junk consists of abandoned satellites, discarded booster rockets, and even flecks of paint. And this debris can do real damage if it comes into contact with operational satellites and spacecraft.

Back in 2009, an American Iridium communications satellite was destroyed during a 22,000 mile-per-hour collision with an out-of-service Russian Cosmos satellite. Earlier this year, a piece leftover from a 2007 Chinese missile test hit and disabled a Russian satellite being used for scientific research.

Crashes like these could have a catastrophic effect on life here on Earth.

Satellites are part of our everyday lives. They're used to connect phone calls, transmit television shows, and power the GPS devices in our cars. More importantly, satellites enable American soldiers to relay information to commanders, help weather scientists track catastrophic storms, and allow intelligence agencies to monitor critical threats developing all over the planet.

It’s no exaggeration to say that satellites help save lives. And that's why we desperately need a cutting-edge Space Fence.

Since 1961, the U.S. Air Force has operated a “Space Surveillance System,” to track objects orbiting Earth. However, this program was terminated in September in response to the across-the-board budget cuts known as “sequestration.”

Worse still, sequestration also delayed progress on the next-generation Space Fence. The previous Space Fence could only track only about 10,000 pieces of debris -- and couldn’t detect anything smaller than a washing machine. The proposed upgrade, on the other hand, employs a radar system capable of detecting debris as small as one-inch in diameter, and can keep tabs on more than 100,000 objects.

The Pentagon was set to award a contract for the project this year, but it has delayed that decision to March 2014 because of budget concerns. At this rate, the system won’t be operational until 2017.

This is exactly the wrong time to be scaling back our efforts to defend space-based technologies against hazardous debris. As physicist David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted, “the number of debris particles is going to continue to increase for at least two centuries as debris runs into other debris.”

The Iridium-Cosmos accident alone created thousands of new particles of space junk. Just last year, the International Space Station was forced to raise its orbit in order to dodge a piece of the Iridium satellite that broke off during the 2009 crash.

Any money saved by delaying the Space Fence, meanwhile, would be negligible compared to the potential cost of the next serious collision. According to the latest report from the Space Foundation, the value of the global space economy -- which includes commercial and government space activity around the world -- rose to over $304 billion in 2012. Without a functioning Space Fence, this significant component of the global economy would be in serious jeopardy.

Pentagon officials and Congress shouldn't sacrifice the new Space Fence in the name of short-term fiscal restraint. Now that the original system has been shuttered, a sophisticated debris-detection system needs to be put in its place as soon as possible.

Space junk colliding with American satellites may sound like the stuff of science fiction movies. But this risk is all too real. Such collisions threaten our security, safety, economy and way of life. Federal lawmakers need to invest in the technologies that can prevent such disasters.

Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research, a Washington-based public-policy research organization.

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