Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security at the Naval War College and a member of our Board of Contributors, is one of the world’s experts on international space cooperation.  Decoding this stuff can get very complicated since many of those involved in international space issues toss around terms like COPUOS, IADC, apogee, LEO, GEO and conjunction and expect everyone to know what they’re talking about. Most people know about space debris because of the infamous Chinese anti-satellite test (most of them forget about the US shoot-down of its own satellite, US 193, which did NOT create debris). But few people really comprehend how dangerous it can be and how it can complicate the lives of the global scientific, commercial and national security communities.  To learn more, read on. The Editor.

Joan Johnson-Freese

From the Cold War space race to the Apollo-Soyuz handshake in space, to holding China at arms length from International Space Station involvement, domestic politics have determined the tone and extent of our international space cooperation.

That is both disheartening and frightening. Disheartening because space is an inherently international domain which hosts assets providing and transmitting information key to personal, corporate and national well being in a globalized world, and it doesn’t work well without cooperation for the sustainable use of all. Frightening because of the willingness of some politicians to sacrifice space cooperation as a whipping boy for other issues, from personal religious views to disapproval regarding types of government or geostrategic land grabs, or to ignore the need for cooperation altogether.

The US is not the only country that politicizes space, with some countries still unwilling to engage in the kind of transparency needed as a prerequisite for space cooperation. But one organization has managed to rise above those politics and work productively toward space sustainability; the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), set to hold its next meeting May 12 to 15 in Beijing. The question is whether its laudable work on maintaining space as a sustainable environment can clear inevitable future political hurdles.

Space agencies have worked together since 1993 as an inter-governmental forum for the coordination of activities related to issues created by man-made and natural space debris, debris with the potential to wreck havoc on or destroy vital space assets. The primary purposes of the IADC are: the exchange of information on space debris research activities between member space agencies: facilitating opportunities for cooperation in space debris research; reviewing the progress of ongoing cooperative activities; and identifying debris mitigation options.

With 12 IADC members – the US, China, Russia, Canada, the UK, Italy, France, Germany, India, Japan, Ukraine, and the European Space Agency (ESA) — it might seem as though political bickering would be standard operating procedure, but that has not been the case.

A Steering Committee of agency representatives directs, by consensus, what studies the four IADC Working Groups will pursue about measurements (WG1), environment and database (WG2), protection (WG3) and mitigation (WG4). Philosophically, the key to the IADC’s success seems to be that it is, quite simply, in the vested interest in all members. It is in no country’s interest to have assets at risk from space debris. Key to this is releasing materials to the public only when all parties agree – thereby omitting or at least minimizing political potshots – and keeping everyone focused on confidence building through technical studies.

Agencies that join must be willing to share data relevant to the Working Groups’ studies and to work with them. One fruit of this cooperation: until recently national governments had few ways to predict when (or where) deorbiting debris – sometimes weighing tons – would hit Earth. These predictions have increased significantly, and are subject to far more confidence.

Proving once again that imitation still is the sincerest form of flattery, other space-related groups are now considering the IADC model.

An expert group chartered by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been considering how best to track and warn of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) threatening to Earth. Chaired by Sergio Camacho, secretary general of the Mexican-based Regional Center for Space Science and Technology Education for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Action Group has recommended an IADC-like structure to create both a warning network and a Mission Planning Advisory Group.  The idea is to, like the IADC, maximize results and minimize politics.

Admittedly, minimizing politics is not the same as removing politics. The 2007 IADC meeting was scheduled to be in Beijing, like the next one. That meeting was “postponed until further notice” after Beijing tested an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon against one of its defunct satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  The successful kinetic impact irresponsibly increased the amount of space debris greater than 10 centimeters in diameter by approximately 10 percent, making Beijing’s hosting of the IADC appear more than a bit hypocritical.

That ASAT test, however, and the 2009 collision of an operational Iridium satellite and a moribund Russian Kosmos satellite, raised international awareness regarding the space debris issue and the importance of IADC’s work. But the group very deliberately does not involve itself in policy. It produces voluntary guidelines for mitigation practices, shares best practices and data for use by its members. Still, what happens with that data becomes a political issue.

In February last year the IADC Steering Committee made a presentation to COPUOS on the Stability of the Future LEO Environment. Since 2005 some IADC members had independently studied the evolution of the far-term LEO satellite population under a variety of scenarios. The study aimed to answer the question: if serious mitigation efforts were undertaken, would the risks of space debris to space assets go down? In 2009, the IADC decided to assess the stability of the LEO space object population and the need to use Active Debris Removal (ADR) to stabilize the future LEO environment. In other words, did the world have to do more than watch carefully and act when needed? The IADC’s Environment and Data Bases working group did the assessment, with the principal participants in the study being Italy, ESA, India, Japan, the US and the UK.

Actually getting debris out of orbit — active debris removal — involves significant technical, financial, legal and security issues. Feasible debris removal techniques exist. Germany, Switzerland, the United States and several other countries have approved programs for the development and testing of capabilities that could be used for debris removal. To develop them to the point where they would be operationally useful to change the course of future space sustainability would be expensive, incurring costs that no one country currently seems willing or able to bear.

Also, since there are no salvage laws in space, each country owns its own space junk, making it impossible for another country to remove it without permission. Such permissions might be difficult to obtain due to security concerns. After all, grabbing a satellite and redirecting it could be a very useful tool of war. If Country X granted permission to Country Y to remove a piece of their space junk, but country Y “accidently” removed a different asset, that awould undoubtedly result in considerable consternation in Country X.

Ideally, any space debris removal program would be an international venture. But here’s the rub: who would trust another country to do the right thing in the right way? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s  (DARPA) Phoenix program has shown great progress in the development of capabilities potentially useful in active space debris removal, and at a relatively low-cost. But who thinks the rest of the world would be willing to trust the United States to limit its activities to benignly removing space debris? And trust is the core issue.

The IADC has provided the global political community with empirical evidence that action needs to be taken to protect the sustainability of space. If only five large pieces of space junk were removed each year, the odds of a catastrophic event go down significantly. But the politics of fear, inertia and delay will likely prevail. Sadly, the most likely scenario to bring cooperation about: a debris-caused space catastrophe that leads to deaths on Earth,

When the IADC meets in May, it should be pleased with its success in working together. Its work is not done though. No one wants fingers pointing when the inevitable disaster occurs, and people ask “who let this happen.” What US politicians need to do is exert global leadership in assuring that the need to act is not ignored in favor of “politics as usual.”


  • Joseph White

    Junk in Orbit needs to be removed. The cloud of crap around the Earth is a safety and navigational hazard, and the tiniest little thing could punch a hole in a capsule, or the ISS. If people of Earth learned to share, then we could survive with only about 50 satellites in orbit, maybe more, maybe less.
    I found the statement about politicians losing interest in space to be telling. Our congressmen, it seems, would rather carve out duchies and keep fighting over them, than explore space.

    • Gary Church

      The ultimate solution is manned geostationary platforms Joseph. Of course they would need 14 feet of water to protect the crews from cosmic radiation (several hundred tons minimum, probably thousands). And they would have to spin to provide one gravity. That would make them….giant wheels like in a certain movie by Kubrick. And since lifting that mass out of Earth’s gravity well would be impractical you would have to build them on the Moon. But….been there. So we need a new president. She might be convinced to go back. Especially considering the only solution to the world’s need for energy in this 21st century is space solar power and the only place to build a million tons of space solar power stations is also the Moon. And since the only real possibility of cheap lift into space is by cheating the rocket equation with beam propulsion (heating pure hydrogen with microwaves to twice the Isp) and that beam propulsion would be provided by space solar power stations that would be built on the Moon… all kind of points to going back to the Moon after the next election cycle. And getting there means the SLS so funding a Space Launch System laser broom to clean up orbital debris would be a good first step. The SpaceX hobby rocket is not going anywhere except LEO- and that is a dead end.

  • CharlesHouston

    There are several things in this article that could be discussed but lets grab the low hanging fruit.

    First the USA 193 destruction DID cause debris, just not as much and not as persistent as the Chinese test, the many Soviet tests, etc.

    The DARPA Phoenix program is there to repurpose spacecraft but will CREATE orbital debris rather than eliminate some. Any work on retired spacecraft in orbit will create small bits of debris, and right near the repurposed spacecraft. If debris was our chief concern we should not be dismantling spacecraft in the geosynchronous orbit! It would be better to have one large item that could be tracked rather than many small ones that could not be tracked. And that is hardly a “relatively low cost” effort.

    We do need to take some active measures and stop being content with just accounting for the existing debris. But that takes some new thinking and we are not very good at that. Sigh.

    • Colin Clark

      Welcome back!

      • CharlesHouston

        Colin – I never left, just try to speak when I have something to say.

  • Gary Church

    Thank you for the article Professor.
    It seems to me that directed energy devices like lasers hitting these debris from above is the way to push them down, decelerate, and de-orbit them. Such a laser platform maneuvering above geosynchronous orbit for the term necessary to eliminate orbital debris is indeed a costly and internationally tricky concept. I suggest such a platform would mass upwards of 30 or 40 tons and best launched by the SLS as an international project. This would funnel funding into the vehicle and accelerate development and also open the door for international projects on the Moon.

  • Horn

    There is only one option that I know of that could help with the removal of debris in LEO without the risk of creating more debris. It’s something called an ion beam shepherd. It’s a satellite with two main ion thrusters. One thruster imparts a force to reduce the debris’ orbital lifetime or push the debris into a graveyard orbit. The opposite thruster would maintain orbit by countering the generated thrust of the first thruster. Nets are risky. Lasers are also risky and, politically speaking, just won’t happen.

    • Gary Church

      Right. Just won’t happen. But a satellite will individually “shepherd” the 21,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 cm in diameter. And then there are the half a million smaller particles. You need to stop harassing me by following me around this forum and posting contrary comments. I am really sick of it.

      • Horn

        I made my own post after I read this article; I did not reply to yours so please calm yourself down. But since you commented on mine, I’ll respond to yours.

        I wrote a paper on debris propagation, mitigation, and removal during my senior year in college. Lasers ablate the material, but run the risk of breaking it up into smaller pieces. We actually deployed a low power laser to the ISS. “Low power,” because of international treaties banning laser weapons in space. Ground-based lasers would bypass this problem, but I don’t think our allies and opponents would be happy about us having a laser weapon that could potentially bring down their satellites.

        • Gary Church

          The ablated smaller pieces also reenter. I am calm, and your “only one option that could help” is wrong. Your ion beam shepherd satellite is not going to deal with 21,000 pieces of orbital debris in our lifetime while a laser will do it within a few years. If you want to make yourself out as an engineer that is fine, but bragging about a bad solution you came up and throwing it in my face while pretending you are not posting right after my posts is pathetic. You ARE cyberstalking me. You keep trying to package it different and cover your tracks but it is obvious. Leave me alone.

          • Horn

            The laser could potentially break apart pieces of debris BEFORE they are slowed enough into a decaying orbit. These new pieces could potentially be too small to track. Thus, one trackable piece of debris has now become several untrackable pieces.

          • Gary Church

            It is all tracked down to the smallest particles and you are full of it. Just harassing me.

          • Horn

            Please, just look at just a few of the papers written by Don Kessler. He’s a retired astrophysicist from NASA. He’s considered the foremost scientist on orbital debris and collisions. I had to quote from his papers quite a bit. And yes, Gary. I’m making all of this up. That’s how I earned my diploma in Aerospace Engineering. I just made stuff up. I never took a class called Aerospace Environments or Spacecraft Propulsion. Just like the cake, it was all a lie.

          • Gary Church

            Then quote jackass. Stop cred boasting and cite. I am sick of you. Leave me alone. How many times do I have to tell you?

          • Gary Church

            I know about Kessler and have mentioned the Kessler Syndrome many times.

            “There are two ways that a laser works” to get rid of a piece of space
            debris, Kessler said. “One is using what they call photon power — just
            letting light waves slow it down until it re-enters [Earth’s
            atmosphere], but that works really well on small stuff.

            “To get a big force out of it, you need to vaporize part of the surface
            and essentially form a jet … but when you’re doing that, you don’t know
            what might happen, so there’s some uncertainty there,” Kessler added.
            “You would hate to cause it to blow up for example.”

            Even if it blows up you still use the broom to sweep the pieces out of orbit. Some uncertainty? That is not what you are trying to push with “only one option.”
            Now leave me alone. LEAVE ME ALONE!

          • Horn

            “DoD’s Space Surveillance Network discretely tracks objects as small as 5 cm in low Earth orbit and about 1 m in geosynchronous orbit.”

            “1 – 10 cm: Objects in this category are usually too small to track and too large to shield against.”


            “There is only one option that I know of that could help with the removal of debris in LEO without the risk of creating more debris.” I didn’t say it was the only option to remove debris, I said it was the only option I know of that didn’t risk making the problem worse.

      • Horn

        It’s a military tech forum. I’m an engineer. I can’t make it any simpler than that.

        • Gary Church

          You are stalking me. I can’t make it any simpler either. Every time I post you post in disagreement. You can’t seem to stop.

          • Horn

            I’ve replied to 5 of the past 11 articles you’ve commented on. That’s not every post. I just disagree with you, a lot.

          • Gary Church

            You give me the creeps.

          • Gary Church

            After I called you a wannabe space clown. You just can’t let it go. I have had so many run-ins with the Musk mob and their bizarre Ayn Rand-in-space psychopath B.S. that I can smell it like a dead rat. Leave me alone.

  • Larry A. Altersitz

    Where is Quark (Richard Benjamin in the short-lived TV show of the same name) when we really need him?

    Is the debris material mostly of one sort (aluminum?) or mixtures (aluminum/glass/plastic)?

    Just ruminating (as the medicine wears off or takes hold), but if a Telstar-size and type object with a kevlar skin was used to “capture” debris using exterior foam “egg crates” to hold items, a path 100m across could be swept ieach orbit. If the “ball” rotated slowly to expose fresh egg crates while being pushed/directed via a simple rocket motor, it might gather a lot of small pieces in a leisurely manner. Once the “ball” was considered “full”, it could be directed towards earth and allowed to burn up in the atmosphere somewhere over the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans. The motor and frame would be kept in space, eased over to the ISS, recharged with fuel, inflate a new “ball” and off to clean more volume. Call it a Space Swiffer.

    Use a simple, agreed upon standard motor/frame and each nation could sweep its own debris without worry of technological compromises. Might be something SpaceX could bid on for launches (sorry Gary, only joking!). IADC and COPUOS could work schedules out with the interested countries. IIRC, Telstar stayed operational for a few months. As a child, I remember seeing it one night without optical equipment, moving across the sky. Still remember how neat it was to see a man-made object moving thru the heavens. Might be a simple, relatively inexpensive way to clean debris and get some popular press coverage for children to see and politicians to get some basic interest in space exploration.

    • Gary Church

      Actually….that is really interesting if you consider pushing it around with a laser to capture debris. Not bad for a gun bunny. You are the one who should get a diploma in aeronautical engineering- instead of a certain weirdo that keeps stalking me on this forum. But you know what they say Larry; friends come and go, enemies accumulate.

      • Larry A. Altersitz

        A ground-based laser system might be a feasible method to push it to a higher orbit, but the rocket motor will still be needed for moving in other directions. The ground lasers might be an anti-NEO defense, but all parties might be cautious about those systems being used against their satellites.

        I was considering a huge fly swatter to knock debris towards earth, but the mechanics seemed to be a bit much.

        • Gary Church

          I was thinking more of a laser satellite pushing several hundred of these things around at once and your space swiffer being nothing more than a very simple egg crate sphere with no motor itself.
          As for a ground laser being a NEO defense; the kind of death star like bolt of energy that would take to burn through the atmosphere is not very practical. We would be using them for launch vehicles (beam propulsion) if it was.