NRC: NASA Needs Plan as Orbital Debris Threat Reaches “Tipping Point”

NRC PR – WASHINGTON – Although NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris programs have responsibly used their resources, the agency’s management structure has not kept pace with increasing hazards posed by abandoned equipment, spent rocket bodies, and other debris orbiting the Earth, says a new report by the National Research Council. NASA should develop a formal strategic plan to better allocate resources devoted to the management of orbital debris. In addition, removal of debris from the space environment or other actions to mitigate risks may be necessary.

The complexity and severity of the orbital debris environment combined with decreased funding and increased responsibilities have put new pressures on NASA, according to the report. Some scenarios generated by the agency’s meteoroid and orbital debris models show that debris has reached a “tipping point,” with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures, the report notes. In addition, collisions with debris have disabled and even destroyed satellites in the past; a recent near-miss of the International Space Station underscores the value in monitoring and tracking orbital debris as precisely as possible.

“The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts,” said Donald Kessler, chair of the committee that wrote the report and retired head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. “NASA needs to determine the best path forward for tackling the multifaceted problems caused by meteoroids and orbital debris that put human and robotic space operations at risk.”

The strategic plan NASA develops should provide a basis for prioritizing efforts and allocating funds to the agency’s numerous meteoroid and orbital debris programs, the report says. Currently, the programs do not have a single management and budget structure that can efficiently coordinate all of these activities. The programs are also vulnerable to changes in personnel, as nearly all of them are staffed by just one person. The strategic plan, which should consider short- and long-term objectives, a schedule of benchmark achievements, and priorities among them, also should include potential research needs and management issues. The report lists these.

Removal of orbital debris introduces another set of complexities, the report adds, because only about 30 percent of the objects can be attributed to the United States. “The Cold War is over, but the acute sensitivity regarding satellite technology remains,” explained committee vice chair George Gleghorn, former vice president and chief engineer for the TRW Space and Technology Group. Although NASA has identified the need for removing debris, the agency and U.S. government as a whole have not fully examined the economic, technological, political, and legal considerations, the report says. For example, according to international legal principle, no nation may salvage or otherwise collect other nations’ space objects. Therefore, the report recommends, NASA should engage the U.S. Department of State in the legal requirements and diplomatic aspects of active debris removal.

In its examination of NASA’s varied programs and efforts, the committee found numerous areas where the organization should consider doing more or different work. For example, NASA should initiate a new effort to record, analyze, report, and share data on spacecraft anomalies. This will provide additional knowledge about the risk from debris particulates too small to be cataloged under the current system yet large enough to potentially cause damage. In addition, NASA should lead public discussion of orbital debris and emphasize that it is a long-term concern for society that must continue to be addressed. Stakeholders, including Congress, other federal and state agencies, and the public, should help develop and review the strategic plan, and it should be revised and updated at regular intervals.

The study was sponsored by NASA. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.