Editorial: Promoting Responsibility In Space

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At a time of heightened attention to the imperative of protecting and preserving the space environment, two episodes stand out as examples of behavior that can only help the cause: the data sharing between nations tracking Russia’s doomed Phobos-Grunt probe as it hurtled toward an uncontrolled atmospheric re-entry, and the late October launch of NASA’s newest climate satellite.

Phobos-Grunt, intended to return samples from the martian moon Phobos, was stranded in Earth orbit by a propulsion system glitch following its November launch. After repeated attempts to regain control of the spacecraft failed, the recovery effort gave way to a re-entry watch, with several nations deploying space surveillance assets to track the descent of the stricken craft.

Among the participants were the United States, Russia, France and Germany, and the result, according to the Interagency Space Debris Coordination (IADC), which compiled the data, was an accurate prediction of Phobos-Grunt’s re-entry location. Among the assets brought to bear were ground-based tracking radars and, sources said, U.S. missile warning satellites whose infrared sensors captured Phobos-Grunt’s fiery plunge into the atmosphere.

Phobos-Grunt was not a long-term orbital debris hazard, but could have caused damage or injury on the ground. The point is that several countries were willing to share data from sensitive space surveillance assets to minimize a threat, something that will become increasingly necessary to avoid collisions and misunderstandings as the orbital environment becomes more congested.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office at Johnson Space Center gave the agency high marks for the way it launched the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) climate and weather satellite and six microsatellites aboard a Delta 2 rocket Oct. 28. After releasing the NPP, the Delta 2’s upper stage reignited to place the six microsatellites in an elliptical orbit that will see them re-enter the atmosphere within the 25-year envelope established in the IADC’s nonbinding debris mitigation guidelines. The upper stage then performed one final burn to lower its own orbit, a maneuver that led to its destruction upon re-entry just 32 days after the launch. Finally, the NPP satellite has sufficient onboard fuel for controllers to guide it safely into the atmosphere upon completion of its mission.

The Phobos-Grunt and NPP examples are noteworthy as the United States and other spacefaring nations consider pursuing a code of conduct aimed at making space a safer operating place for all. The U.S. government has created some confusion on the matter in recent weeks, first saying it would not adopt the European Union’s proposed code of conduct on the grounds that it was too restrictive, then saying the draft document could serve as the basis for negotiating a nonbinding set of international guidelines for space behavior.

Some members of the U.S. Congress are wary of any accord that might handcuff the U.S. military in space. In a Jan. 18 letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, four Republican lawmakers in positions of influence expressed concern that the administration was preparing to negotiate an international agreement that could have “adverse impacts” on U.S. military and intelligence space operations, among other things.

It is perfectly reasonable for congressional skeptics to insist on having a full understanding of a code of conduct’s potential impacts on U.S. military and economic security. But the letter mischaracterized the situation by saying the administration intends to “negotiate an international arms control agreement similar to the code” as proposed by Europe and raised issues that presume details of an accord that has yet to be drafted.

The terms “arms control” and “treaty” were conspicuously absent from the Jan. 17 statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that seems to have prompted the letter. In declaring the administration’s intent to work with Europe and others to develop an “International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities,” the statement made clear that the United States would not sign any accord that constrains its national security space activities or ability to defend itself or its allies.

The administration insists it will not pursue a space-related arms control agreement on the grounds that it would be unverifiable, and has stressed that a future International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities — like the code proposed by the European Union — would not be legally binding to its signatories.

The idea is to encourage responsible behavior and build an atmosphere of trust among all spacefaring nations, including China, with which Washington currently shares space-surveillance data on an ad hoc basis. Space utilization worldwide is only going to grow in the coming years, and with that comes increased congestion and risk of events — accidental or deliberate — that further degrade the orbital environment and compromise this precious military, scientific and economic resource.

Skeptics of a space code of conduct, both in the United States and elsewhere, tend to be focused on security, and that’s not a bad thing. But they should not dismiss the possibility that a carefully crafted code will enhance the security of those countries that are most reliant on space assets.