Do we need a fence to protect us from 'space junk'?

It is estimated that there are currently about half-a-million pieces of junk orbiting Earth at high speeds. (Australian National University)

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From dead satellites, to spent rocket boosters, the earth has an orbiting junk yard. The U.S. plans to build a giant electronic fence to track the millions of pieces of space debris...but how dangerous is this space junk? And is building a fence the answer?


 

...It may be a relief to know Sandra Bullock and George Clooney aren't really in peril, but it turns out that real life space debris may be just as frightening as it seems in the movies. The flotsam and jetsam of space gathers like orbiting driftwood, threatening the functional technology the world relies on.

This month, the U.S. Pentagon plans to award a contract for the first phase of a $6-billion project dubbed the Space Fence. It's a radar system that will track much more of the debris field.

"There are millions of objects in space. Every time there's a launch to space or collision there's going to be extra objects up there. The primary purpose of a space fence system is to detect, track and catalogue these objects."

...That's from a video produced by Lockheed Martin, one of the companies bidding to operate the Space Fence. The company says there are millions of objects in space, but only about 20 thousand are catalogued. A new system, they say, could track ten times that amount.

"Much like early warning systems for weather on earth --be it a hurricane, or tornado warning-- we can use this information to protect the assets that are out there and forever improve space flight."

Lockheed Martin

But all this space material may be beyond the capacity of a few countries to control...and who gave who permission to hurl this stuff up there in the first place?

  • Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, the former Director of the Center for Space Policy & Law at the University of Central Florida, and the author of numerous books on space, including Heavenly Ambitions: America's Quest to Dominate Space.
  • Michael Listner is an attorney and the founder of Space Law and Policy Solutions, a firm that provides counsel on space law and policy

What do you think we should do about all this 'space junk'?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Cynthia Vukets, Elizabeth Hoath, and intern Deanne Bender.

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