Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy at the U.S. State Department, stressed the importance of limiting space debris at a space situational awareness seminar in Tokyo Feb. 27.  (See OnOrbitWatch’s profile of Rose)

The seminar was hosted by AGI, the Exton, Pa.-based company that develops modeling and analysis software for the space industry.

Rose was the keynote speaker at the event and his speech focused on recent efforts to rein in space debris, including draft versions of an international code of conduct and UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines

But to make his point, he used lighter examples to show exactly what the space debris looks like.

“Space is more congested now than ever before. The U.S. is currently tracking tens of thousands of pieces of space debris 10 centimeters or larger in various Earth orbits. Of these objects about 1,100 are active satellites and the rest are space debris, objects ranging from satellite parts, to spent rocket bodies to obsolete satellites. Other orbiting debris that slipped the grasp of our astronauts includes a glove, cameras, a wrench, pliers, a tool bag, and even a toothbrush.”

The speech can be found in its entirety at this U.S. State Department website or you can read it below.

Remarks at AGI’s Japan Space Situational Awareness Seminar

It is my pleasure to be here today to discuss the critical topic of space situational awareness, or what is also known as SSA. I would like to express my gratitude to Analytical Graphics, Inc. for inviting me to participate in what will certainly be an interesting discussion.

The topic of SSA is particularly timely given the recent close approach of the near-Earth asteroid, 2012 DA14, earlier this month. This asteroid, which was about half the size of an American football field, passed within 28,000 kilometers of the Earth’s surface on February 15. In fact, it was the closest-ever known approach by such a large object. Due to its close proximity, our SSA capabilities were essential to ensure that there was no risk of a conjunction with satellites in geosynchronous orbits.

While monitoring potential satellite conjunctions with asteroids is one part of SSA, today, I will focus my remarks on why accurate SSA is necessary to monitor the growing amount of debris in space. As many of you are aware, the increasingly congested space environment is of growing concern. Every day as the amount of debris in space increases, the threat of a collision increases correspondingly. As a result, increasing our knowledge of where objects are in space through SSA is essential. First, I will describe the current debris environment. Then, I will explain how international cooperation is essential for gaining increased awareness in space. Finally, I will discuss how transparency and confidence building measures such as the EU’s proposed International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities can enhance our SSA.

The Debris Environment

Space is more congested now than ever before. The U.S. is currently tracking tens of thousands of pieces of space debris 10 centimeters or larger in various Earth orbits. Of these objects about 1,100 are active satellites and the rest are space debris, objects ranging from satellite parts, to spent rocket bodies to obsolete satellites. Other orbiting debris that slipped the grasp of our astronauts includes a glove, cameras, a wrench, pliers, a tool bag, and even a toothbrush. Some of the debris in space was created accidentally through collisions, such as the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos collision, some was created through routine space launches and operations, while other debris was created through intentional acts such as the Chinese ASAT test in 2007. Debris from China’s 2007 ASAT test and the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos collision increased the debris population by more than 4,500 objects – 3,000 and 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris respectively. Moreover, the debris from these events will last for hundreds of years.

The minimum speed of an object in orbit around the Earth is approximately 17,500 miles per hour. At such speeds even a miniscule piece of debris presents a serious hazard for spacecraft and astronauts aboard the International Space Station. In fact, in recent years, the International Space Station has opted to maneuver numerous times to avoid a potentially catastrophic collision with debris.

SSA Cooperation

Space situational awareness is foundational to our efforts to understand what is going on in space and to cope with the increasing amount of space debris. SSA enables us to characterize the space environment and to predict the location of objects orbiting the Earth.

No one nation has the resources or geography necessary to precisely track every space object, and as a result, international cooperation on SSA is essential. The President’s 2010 National Space Policy implicitly recognizes this fact and thus directs us to collaborate with foreign partners, the private sector, and intergovernmental organizations to improve our space situational awareness – specifically, to improve our shared ability to rapidly detect, warn of, characterize, and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems. Having accurate information in a timely fashion is critical for a number of reasons. First, it is critical to NASA, our International Space Station partners, and all spacefaring nations, where human spaceflight safety is of the utmost importance. Second, it is critical for U.S. and allied security – indeed, everyone’s security –to detect, identify, and attribute actions in space that are contrary to responsible and peaceful uses of outer space. And third, given the growing dependence we all have on space-derived information, it is critical to our global economy.

The United States is taking action in a variety of ways to implement the National Space Policy and to enhance our SSA capabilities, especially through international cooperation. The United States continues to provide notifications to other governments and commercial satellite operators of potentially hazardous conjunctions between orbiting objects. To do so, the United States works with space-faring entities to establish two-way information exchanges and facilitate rapid notifications of space hazards. However, before we can provide these notifications, we must ensure that we have accurate contact information for satellite owners and operators. As a result, the Department of State has reached out to all space-faring nations to ensure that U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center has current contact information for both government and private sector satellite operations centers.

We hope that as our space surveillance capabilities improve, we will be able to notify satellite operators earlier and with greater accuracy in order to prevent collisions in space. To this end, the United States is working with allies and friends on a country-by-country basis to develop processes and jointly develop a universal message format for more timely and tailored collision warning data. We are also working closely with the commercial space industry to determine the kinds of satellite data and other information that can be shared. Working together at the operator level to share collision warning information will have the added benefit of improving spaceflight safety and communication among governmental and commercial operators, users, and decision-makers.

Across the United States Government, we are also supporting numerous multilateral and bilateral engagements in space situational awareness. For example, in April of 2012, Japan and the United States agreed to deepen our security partnership in space through various cooperative measures, such as the development of a framework for sharing space situational awareness services and information. The United States also has ongoing discussions with Russia on measures to enhance safety for robotic space missions as well as for human spaceflight.

The United States is also collaborating with our friends and allies in Europe as they continue developing their own SSA capabilities. The State Department, in collaboration with Department of Defense, is currently engaged in technical exchanges with experts from the European Space Agency, the European Union, and individual ESA and EU Member States to ensure our existing and planned SSA systems contribute to a more comprehensive situational awareness picture to ensure the safety, sustainability, stability, and security of the space environment. Additionally, the Department of Defense has signed bilateral SSA partnership statements of principles with Canada, France, and Australia. Looking ahead, the United States also sees opportunities for cooperation on SSA with other nations and nongovernmental space operators around the globe.

Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures

Transparency and confidence-building measures, or TCBMs, also have the potential of enhancing our SSA by increasing our knowledge of activities occurring in the space environment. TCBMs are a means by which governments can address challenges and share information with the aim of creating mutual understanding and reducing tensions. They consist of pragmatic, voluntary, near-term actions that we can do to prevent misperceptions, miscalculations, and mistrust between nations.

In our implementation of the National Space Policy, the United States has been pursuing TCBMs to strengthen stability in space. For instance, the United States is continuing to consult with the European Union on its initiative to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, or simply “the Code”. We consider the development of such a non-legally binding Code of Conduct as being an effective, pragmatic, and timely way of strengthening the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment.

The European Union is leading efforts to develop a text that is acceptable to the greatest number of countries. We believe that the EU’s latest draft is a useful foundation and constructive starting point for developing a consensus on an International Code. The United States has also been cooperating closely with Japan and our friends and partners around the globe on this initiative. In fact, the United States and Japan have agreed at the highest levels of our governments through a joint statement in April 2012, to pursue voluntary and pragmatic transparency and confidence building measures in space, including an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

TCBMs such as the Code can also contribute to our awareness of the space environment. For example, in the latest draft of the Code of Conduct there is political commitment to notify of accidents or collisions that have taken place, thereby enhancing SSA. This draft also includes a commitment of providing timely notifications of malfunctions that could result in a significantly increased probability of a high risk re-entry event or collisions between space objects. Such notifications not only improve our awareness, but also increase transparency by mitigating the risk of mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust.

The United States is already following such practices – as we did when we promptly notified Russia through diplomatic channels when we detected the collision of a commercial iridium satellite with an inoperable Russian military spacecraft in February 2009. This experience is contributing to our ongoing dialogue with Russia on developing additional concrete and pragmatic bilateral TCBMs that will enhance spaceflight safety.

Additionally, an International Code of Conduct could also facilitate our awareness of the space environment by reducing the rate of growth of debris in the future. The latest draft of the Code reaffirms the UN Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines and calls on Subscribing States to commit to take appropriate measures to minimize the risk of collisions in space. States would also commit to refrain from any action which brings about, directly or indirectly, damage, or destruction, of space objects and to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the creation of space debris, in particular, the creation of long-lived space debris. These provisions in the Code strive to encourage Subscribing States to reduce the amount of debris they create and thus diminish the chances of future collisions.

Another initiative that could enhance SSA is the multiyear study of “long-term sustainability of space activities” within the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS. One of these expert working groups will focus on space debris, space operations, and tools for collaborative SSA while another will focus on space weather, thereby addressing a range of potential hazards to earth-orbiting satellites. We are hopeful that this effort will lead to the formation of voluntary “best practice guidelines,” which will help reduce operational risks to all space systems. In addition to drawing on the expertise of spaceflight experts, this study also will draw upon the background and “best practice guidelines” that have been developed by U.S. commercial satellite operators and by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC).

A final multilateral effort currently being undertaken is the UN Group of Government Experts study on Space TCBMs, for which I serve as the U.S. Expert. Under the capable chairmanship of Victor Vasiliev of Russia, the GGE offers an opportunity to advance a range of voluntary and non-legally binding TCBMs in space that have the potential to mitigate the dangers and risks of the increasingly congested space environment. The GGE thus serves as a real opportunity to move forward with pragmatic steps to strengthen stability in space through bilateral as well as multilateral measures.


As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, “The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors.” Unless we take action to reverse these trends, it could have damaging consequences for all of us. Given the increasing threat of space debris, it is essential that we have robust situational awareness of the space environment in order to ensure stability in space as well as the sustainability of our space activities. As a result, the United States is striving to improve our ability to monitor, track, and provide notifications regarding space objects.

Furthermore, our picture of the space environment is greatly enhanced through international cooperation. Examples of this cooperation include sharing SSA information as well as pursuing initiatives such as the EU’s proposal for an International Code of Conduct and the COPUOS Agenda Item on Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities. Such cooperation with established and emerging members of the space-faring community and with the private sector will help to prevent future collisions and preserve the space environment for the benefit of all nations and future generations.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.