WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Countries with satellites in space will have to play “dodgeball” for decades to avoid debris from this week’s collision of U.S. and Russian satellites over Siberia, a top U.S. military officer said on Thursday.
“My worry is that that debris field is going to be up there for a while,” said General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the military’s space operations.
“So we’re going to have to play a little bit of dodgeball for many tens of years to come,” he said.
“The good news is once it stabilizes, it’s relatively predictable,” he told a forum on the national security implications of operations in space. “The bad news is it’s a large area.”
A telecommunications satellite owned by Iridium Satellite and a defunct Russian military communications satellite were destroyed about 485 miles (780 km) above the Russian Arctic on Tuesday.
Cartwright, who from 2004 to 2007 headed the Pentagon’s Strategic Command responsible for space operations, said the military had been alerted by Iridium to the sudden “non-reporting” of the destroyed craft.
Iridium runs a network that uses 66 satellites to provide voice and data services for about 300,000 far-flung clients worldwide. It provides voice and data services for areas not served by ground-based communications networks.
Cartwright said he expected within a month to be able to forecast where spacecraft could be placed to avoid the orbiting junk. There are already more than 18,000 pieces of debris catalogued by the command’s Joint Space Operations Centre.
As with all objects large enough to track, data on the new debris will be posted on the public website Space-Track.org “so all nations and companies with assets in space have access to the information,” Navy Lt. Charles Drey, a Strategic Command spokesman, said.
Another command spokesman, Air Force Colonel Les Kodlick, told Reuters on Wednesday that more than 500 bits of debris were being tracked from the collision.
He said then it was believed to have been the first collision between two satellites in orbit but a Pentagon spokesman contradicted this on Thursday.
“There were three or four other events,” spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters, without providing details. The Strategic Command did not immediately respond to a request to explain the discrepancy.
Whitman said it was not possible for the U.S. military to track and predict the movements of all 18,000 objects in space all the time.
“Because there is so much, you have to prioritize what you’re looking at,” he said. “There are limits on your ability to track and compute every piece...”
“We did not predict this collision,” he said.
China added significantly to space debris when it used a ground-based ballistic missile to blow apart an obsolete weather satellite in a January, 2007 arms test. The United States used a missile from a Navy warship to explode a tank of toxic fuel on a crippled U.S. spy satellite last February.
Cartwright said he would like to boost information-sharing with Russia, China, France and other nations active in space to deal with the threat from orbiting junk.
The United States also must enhance its “space situational awareness” to head off threats and be able to recognise any possible attacks, he said. At issue here could be billions of dollars in high technology that the U.S. Defence Department is seeking to acquire.
“We would be remiss not to take advantage of this and try to turn it to good as we move forward,” Cartwright said. There is no international agreement among satellite operators for sharing data to ensure safety in space.
Nations have been operating under a “Big Sky” theory, said Richard DalBello, a vice president at Intellsat, Ltd, which calls itself the world’s largest provider of fixed satellite services.
This idea, now overtaken, was that space is so vast that the odds of a collision were “infinitesimal,” he said in an interview.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray; editing by David Storey