U.S.
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Report: U.S. space assets threatened by debris as in film ‘Gravity’

Council on Foreign Relations report also mentions China, North Korea and Iran as most likely aggressors in space

Orbiting debris and potential enemies with growing technological capabilities pose a growing threat to U.S. space assets, according to a study released Tuesday.

“Gravity,” the Academy Award–winning film, portrays the dangers posed by space debris in a visually striking way — and depicts a scenario of catastrophic satellite destruction that could actually happen, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) said.

“Space objects — or even flecks of paint — travel as fast as eighteen thousand miles per hour and can cause catastrophic damage to manned and unmanned spacecraft,” the CFR said in the report, titled “Dangerous Space.”

At that speed, a half-inch piece of debris would have the same kinetic force as bowling ball traveling at 300 miles per hour. "This is one thing ‘Gravity’ gets very wrong: The actors would not have been able to see the debris moving toward them," the report said.

An anti-satellite test (ASAT) carried out by China in January 2007 against one of its defunct weather satellites almost doubled the amount of space debris in the low Earth orbit (LEO), where half of the world’s 1,100 active satellites operate, the report said.

“China’s demonstrated disregard for the consequences of ASAT tests is the greatest threat to international space security,” the report said.

Portions of the LEO have reached a “tipping point,” according to the U.S. National Research Council, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris larger than one centimeter (0.39 inch) trapped in an orbit where they will collide with other debris or spacecraft — creating more debris.

Increased debris could make high-demand areas of outer space off limits, and there are currently no means for removing existing debris, the CFR study warned. The United States has the greatest stake in ensuring continued safe access to the LEO because it has the most invested in space.

No other country, according to the CFR, spends more on its space activity than the U.S. The U.S. accounts for 75 percent of global space funding, and 43 percent of all active satellites are U.S.-owned.

The U.S. faces other growing threats in space, such as intentionally destabilizing actions, the study said, especially as U.S. adversaries continue to pursue and acquire counter-space technologies. And a variety of potential outer space incidents could unleash an international crisis.

The CFR targeted China, North Korea and Iran as the most likely space aggressors.

“Threats to U.S. satellites would reduce the country’s ability to attack suspected terrorists with precision-guided munitions and conduct imagery analysis of nuclear weapons programs, and could interrupt non-cash economic activity,” the report said.

In times of crisis, such incidents — whether intentional or unintentional — could severely limit timely information available to decision makers. And that would be compounded by the difficulty in deciding what or who was responsible for the damage.

“This could create a first-strike incentive for U.S. decision-makers seeking to act before its understanding of a terrestrial dispute or its space situational awareness — the ability to view, characterize, and predict the location of man-made objects in space — is interrupted or further degraded,” the report said.

The CFR cited peacetime interference as another cause for concern. This includes “probing the technical capabilities of U.S. space systems or ground-based sensors, spying on the location and capabilities of U.S. satellites, and denying or limiting U.S. intelligence collection from space satellites through electronic jamming, blinding optical systems, and issuing false instructions, known as ‘spoofing,’” it said.

The report recommended that the U.S. refocus its efforts to establish international space regulations and protocols to limit or prevent dangerous space incidents.

“If the United States wishes to better guarantee its access to space as China, North Korea, and Iran advance their capabilities and other space powers emerge, it must intensify its efforts to have an impact or forsake its role in shaping rules of the road for space,” the report said.

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