Photo credit: European Space Agency/Rex Feat
By Ian Sample
The steady rise in space junk that is floating around the planet could provoke a political row and even armed conflict, according to scientists, who warn that even tiny pieces of debris have enough energy to damage or destroy military satellites.
Researchers said fragments of spent rockets and other hurtling hardware posed a “special political danger” because of the difficulty in confirming that an operational satellite had been struck by flying debris and had not fallen victim to an intentional attack by another nation.
Space agencies in the US and Russia track more than 23,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10cm, but estimates suggest there could be half a billion fragments ranging from one to 10cm, and trillions of even smaller particles.
The junk poses the greatest danger to satellites in low Earth orbit, where debris can slam into spacecraft at a combined speed of more than 30,000mph. This realm of space, which stretches from 100 to 1200 miles above the surface, is where most military satellites are deployed.
In a report to be published in the journal Acta Astronautica, Vitaly Adushkin at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow writes that impacts from space junk, especially on military satellites, posed a “special political danger” and “may provoke political or even armed conflict between space-faring nations. The owner of the impacted and destroyed satellite can hardly quickly determine the real cause of the accident.”
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