Space Junk At 'Tipping Point'? - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Space Junk At 'Tipping Point'?

CNN.COM - It sounds like the theme of a 1980s video game, but the National Research Council say NASA should seriously consider ways to better tackle the problem of space debris.

In a 180-page report out this week, the council said NASA, partly because of slashed funding, is facing mounting pressure to find ways to lessen the dangers "posed by abandoned equipment, spent rocket bodies, and other debris orbiting the Earth." Oh, and meteoroids, too, an ex-NASA department head added.

Some models show that the amount of debris has reached a "tipping point," meaning there is enough junk already in orbit that it could keep colliding, creating more debris and endangering spacecraft, satellites and the International Space Station.

The council said debris has already destroyed satellites, and the space station recently experienced a near miss. CNN reported another close call in March 2009.

Not only does NASA need to manage the mess floating around in the great beyond, it might need to remove it, the council advised.

"NASA needs to determine the best path forward for tackling the multifaceted problems caused by meteoroids and orbital debris that put human and robotic space operations at risk," Donald Kessler, chair of the committee that wrote the report and retired head of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office, said in a news release.

The council warns that part of the problem is that NASA has several programs for dealing with orbital debris, but most are staffed by only one person (evoking images of glassy-eyed teens in their rooms commanding laser-equipped space drones with joysticks).

The report claims that about 30 percent of the debris can be attributed to U.S. space activity, but NASA and the American government have not fully explored "the economic, technological, political and legal considerations."

Political, you ask? Yes, we stumbled on that one, too, but the report explains that international law prevents nations from collecting another country's space objects.

"Therefore, the report recommends, NASA should engage the U.S. Department of State in the legal requirements and diplomatic aspects of active debris removal," she said.

As if Hillary Clinton didn't already have her hands full with the Arab Spring.

The report further suggests NASA should identify spacecraft anomalies to better understand the risk posed by debris, lead public discussions on the problem and emphasize that space junk is a long-term concern for society. Congress, the public and state and federal agencies should also devise a strategy and update it regularly, according to the report.

Where is Bruce Willis when you need him?

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