Space Station’s Near Miss Underlines the Dangers of Debris in Space

The space station’s near collision with the remains of a Russian rocket booster raises new questions about space junk.

On a Saturday when most Americans were enjoying an early spring weekend, the six astronauts aboard the international space station had a very close encounter. A discarded fragment of a Russian-made rocket-booster nearly collided with the space station. The March 24 incident was serious enough, according to NASA, for the six astronauts (three Russians, two Americans and a Dutchman) to take safety precautions and move to the escape capsules.

“It basically forced the astronauts on the space station to take cover because of the potential fear that it could hit the space station,” Frank Rose, the State Department’s most senior diplomat working on space policy, told The Daily Beast in an interview. Noting that the rocket booster was hurtling through space at 17,500 miles per hour, Rose said, “Had that hit the space station, it would have done catastrophic damage.”

Rose, whose formal title is deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, is trying to forge an understanding between space-faring nations to agree not to intentionally create space junk, or the debris created when satellites, rockets, and other man-made objects in orbit collide.

Rose has some reason to be concerned. In 2007 the Chinese military tested an anti-satellite missile successfully, shattering one of China’s old satellites into thousands of shards of debris. Two years later, a Russian satellite crashed into a communications satellite owned by the company Iridium. Rose said those two events are responsible for more than a third of the space junk that threatens U.S. satellites today. “Quite frankly these two events account for 36 percent of the total amount of catalogued space debris to be traversing in low earth orbit,” he said.

Earlier this year the Obama administration decided to pursue an international code of conduct for space-faring nations that would commit countries to refrain from intentionally create space debris. The foundation of the understanding is based on a code of conduct developed in 2011 by the European Union.

Rose, however, has his work cut out for him. To start, the Chinese have not begun any kind of formal consultations on their space activities. “Our Chinese colleagues are starting to understand that they too have a lot to lose from irresponsible actions in space. We are hopeful they will begin a dialogue with the international community,” he said. By contrast, Rose has had more formal talks about space debris with his Russian counterparts.

Greg Schulte, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told Congress earlier this month that his Chinese counterpart at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency was embarrassed in 2007 after the anti-satellite missile test and had no talking points to share for a week after the incident.

“The Chinese continue to develop a very broad range of counter space capabilities, including ones that could cause debris. They've tested additional systems, but in a way that has minimized debris,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

Rose also must grapple with Congress. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees space policy, said he is looking to prohibit the administration through the annual Defense budget authorization from signing onto such a code of conduct unless it is submitted to the Senate as a treaty.

Turner told The Daily Beast, “Until the administration can tell Congress that under no circumstances will the military intelligence activities in space of the United States be affected by the code, then the president must come to Congress to request approval” of what the chairman called “his proposed space arms-control regime.”

Rose says the code of conduct was not a treaty and would not propose limits on U.S. activities. “It is not a legally binding treaty or international agreement that would impose legal obligations on the United States,” he said.

Schulte argued that the code of conduct was in the national interest. “Our concern is that there are more and more countries, including China, that are developing space capabilities,” he told Turner’s committee earlier this month and that a proposed code of conduct would "help to protect the long-term stability of space.”

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Paula DeSutter, who was an assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance under President George W. Bush, said a code of conduct was better for the U.S. national interest than a more formal space arms-control treaty favored by China and Russia that is known as the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT).

“Basically the code of conduct if improved after the version the E.U. put out wouldn’t be a bad thing,” DeSutter said. “It is certainly better than the PPWT by leaps and bounds, but on the other hand it’s not negotiated, it’s not done, and if the E.U. and the administration become desperate for something that looks like an agreement, they will get something desperate and it will be bad.”