Developing a Foreign Policy for Earth's Orbit

Even before a U.S. communications satellite and a long-defunct Russian orbiter ran into each other last week and created millions of smaller pieces of debris, the space around Earth was full of junk. Officials might take some time to tally and track the newly-created wreckage, but Jean-Francois Kaufeler of the European Space Agency says there are already more than 13,000 man-made objects in Earth's orbit.

The near space zone in which satellites orbit is much larger than humans can easily comprehend, so satellite crashes won't become a constant occurrence. But they are becoming more likely as more and more stuff goes into orbit, and the ESA is trying to make a preemptive strike. The agency launched a program in January aimed to try to track objects in orbit more accurately. The crux of it, they say, is getting the world's space agencies, who track their own objects, to share navigation information across borders.

Will it help? Maybe. There were reports the European space-watchers knew the U.S. and Russian satellites would make a close pass last week, but current monitoring systems couldn't tell them exactly how close. But given the world's increasing reliance on satellites—and their growing importance for defense—convincing nations to reveal the speed and location of their orbiters might be easier said than done.

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