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Look what’s jamming space highways

There are some 850 operational satellites struggling to manoeuvre their way through an estimated 35 million pieces of debris floating in space, reports Cooshalle Samuel.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2007 03:13 IST
Cooshalle Samuel

While most of us worry about the jammed state of our roads and highways, scientists and astronomers are today worrying about the cluttered and congested state of our space highways — better known as orbits.

Unknown to most of us, there are some 850 operational satellites struggling to manoeuvre their way through an estimated 35 million pieces of debris floating in space.

In fact, our most heavily used orbits such as the geostationary orbit and the low earth orbit, which host about 48 per cent and 36 per cent respectively of all global space launches, are almost packed choc-a-bloc with some 13,000 pieces of space debris of various sizes, including some large enough to seriously damage or destroy a spacecraft.

While the good news is that over 90 per cent of space debris are being tracked, the bad news is that even a small piece of metal, travelling at 7.5 kilometers per second, could destroy a spacecraft worth billions of dollars.

The Space Security Report 2007 released by the Space Security Index, an apex body of space and security organisations, notes that since 2004, the annual production of new debris has been steadily rising. It argues that these free floating
debri pieces are the biggest threats to the security of outer space, which today accounts for over $100 billion in global revenues and is of strategic concern to a growing number of countries.

Further, of the total increase in space debris in 2006, 171 pieces were created by launches with most of them orbiting within 2,000 kilometers of the Earth’s surface. The total launch-related debris currently in orbit stands at 6,900, of which US launch activity accounts for 45 per cent and CIS launch activity for 42 per cent.

India created the fifth largest number of debri pieces, 105 in number, between 1957-2006.

Interestingly, it also noted that civil expenditures on space have continued to increase in India and China in recent years, while past decreases in the US, the EU, and Russia have begun to rebound. While ISRO saw the greatest proportional increase in funding at 35 per cent with a 2006 budget of $815-million, Russia’s Federal Space Agency’s
annual budget grew to $873 million and the European Space Agency reported a budget of $3.5-billion in 2006. The United States continued to dominate the world in civil space spending with NASA’s funding for 2007 remaining $16.62-billion.