A few days ago, a report came out that the debris (= wreckage) from China’s Fengyun 1C meteorological satellite – which was deliberately destroyed in an anti-satellite weapons test in 2007 – may have hit and severely damaged a Russian spacecraft on January 22, 2013. This Russian nano-satellite was launched in 2009 and was expected to last five years in space. This incident once again drives attention to the fact that an international solution must be found to resolve the problem of space rubbish.
We have been polluting space since Sputnik first orbited the Earth in 1957. For many years, we have ignored this problem. But as the lower orbits of the Earth are getting more crowded, the urgency of finding a solution to this problem is becoming higher and higher. Collisions between space debris and satellites threaten many of the systems we use in daily life. Think about GPS, live television news, weather reports and financial transactions. If we don’t do find a solution, soon there will not be safe corridors to space and the low-orbits will become unreliable.
A solution that comes to mind is to just blow up the defunct satellites so that they don’t pose a threat to functioning satellites anymore. However, this is not an option in space. Even very small pieces may pose a significant threat to satellites, due to the large speed with which they travel. For example, being hit by a ‘sugar-cube” of space debris is the equivalent of standing next to an exploding hand grenade. Bringing the debris back to earth or allowing it to burn up in the atmosphere is an option, but this is extremely expensive.
So what can we do then? Well, a more feasible solution would be to shoot up special satellites in to space to push expired ones out of the orbit, creating a kind of final resting place for them. But here we encounter a different kind of problem, namely a political one. The thing is that if you have the capability to push a defunct satellite out of the orbit, you could use the same method to take down a good one. This gives a state military advantages and therefore this is a sensitive question. We would not want a space race to develop.
Not to mention that there are many legal aspects to it: who would be allowed to remove these defunct satellites? Would that be the country that put it there in the first place? But what if that country does not want to do it and the space debris just continues to circle around and pose a threat to the satellites of other countries? Can someone else step in then or even take the refusing state to court?
Plus, some people might argue that this is not a solution to space pullution at all, as we would just move the space junk from one place to another, instead of really cleaning space up and recycle.
In conclusion, space debris circuling the earth is a legal, political and military problem that we need to formulate an answer to.