Letter: Setting Example on Orbital Debris

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Spacefaring enterprises are answering the call to preserve the near-Earth space environment for the world. The U.S. Air Force, European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are leading the way in minimizing and remediating space debris. While many debate whether there is a problem, negotiate the details and ponder codes of conduct, they are acting.

The recent launch of the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) and six cubesats on a Delta 2 [“Latest Delta 2 Launch Cited as a Model of Orbital Debris Stewardship,” Feb. 6, page 6] is just one example.

The Air Force was among the first to issue a comprehensive standard for disposal from low Earth orbit (SMC Standard SMC-S-022), and it has been diligent to enforce it.

France, Japan and others have codified the goal in statute.

The Air Force has established concepts for disposal of spent boosters and end-of-life planning that are models for international standards and agreements.

NASA’s disposal of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite and other mission-ended satellites demonstrates extreme diligence and success.

A recent technical paper, “AAS 12-177, End-of-Life Procedures for Air Force Missions: CloudSat and TacSat-3,” describes comprehensive consideration of end-of-life passivation and disposal throughout a space system program.

The NPP launch and early on-orbit operation sequence demonstrated much more than good stewardship. The choreography of deploying a major operational satellite, depositing small satellites in different orbits with high probability of rapid re-entry at mission end, and then maneuvering the booster into a confident orbit for safe re-entry in due course demonstrate exceptional space operations skill and remove all argument from those who would avoid this responsibility.

I hope that commercial launches and operations will have the margin for this degree of stewardship.

Congratulations to the Air Force and those who participated in these milestone accomplishments.

Congratulations to all who are sustaining and expanding the medium that has changed the world.

Dave Finkleman

Colorado Springs , Colo.