Reaching for the stars through a cloud of debris

In a recent Toronto Star opinion piece Anthony Salloum, senior consultant to the Rideau Institute on International Affairs, calls on the Canadian Space Agency and Federal government to strategize a long-term plan with funding for Canada’s future in space. He raises concerns about Canada’s lagging role in regard to space exploration compared to other G-8 countries, and about the pressing need to address the mounting challenge of space debris. Over the last 50 years since the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, over 900 active satellites have been sent into orbit, and the resulting space debris means there are over 19,000 human-created objects in space bigger than 10 centimeters. More than 90 per cent of these objects are dead satellites, spent rocket stages or other pieces of debris that serve no function other than to pose a collision threat to working satellites. Given the ever increasing importance of space Canada needs to make a greater contribution to the space industry and research as well as the mitigation of debris and promoting the peaceful use of space.

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Reaching for the stars through a cloud of debris
Growing importance of space makes it imperative to have a long-term strategy
July 20, 2009


It’s hard to overstate this, but we’ve come a really long way in space exploration over the past 50 years.

Last month, Euroconsult, a French consulting firm specializing in the satellite sector, predicted that 1,185 spacecraft will be launched in the next 10 years. This represents a 47 per cent increase over the 10 years ending in 2008.

Currently, there are more than 900 active satellites in orbit around Earth. To put this in perspective, commercial satellite communications only began with the 1965 launch of Early Bird, a tiny 40-kilogram satellite with 240 voice circuits, or one low-quality black-and-white television channel.

Many of us are intuitively aware that there has been a significant increase in the role space plays in our lives. We subscribe to satellite TV, use Google Earth, look at satellite weather imagery, have access to satellite education in the Northwest Territories, and even buy cars equipped with satellite radio and GPS. Many more countries have joined the race to space to provide these services to their citizens and more. India, China, Japan and the U.S. have announced plans for manned missions to the Moon by 2020, and the U.S. and the European Space Agency are also planning manned missions to Mars by 2030.

Canada’s future role in space could be hampered by a lack of funding and strategic planning, as well as the sustainability of space itself, such as the challenge of space debris.

Canada has much to be proud of, especially in the area of robotics and remote-sensing satellites with the success of the Canadarm, Canadarm-2 and the RADARSAT family. Recently, the Harper government allocated an additional $100 million to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in the 2009-2010 budget, and agency president Steve MacLean has been working on a long-term strategic plan.

On May 13 of this year, CSA announced Canada’s latest astronauts, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, following a national recruitment campaign. Later that month, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk and two Europeans were launched into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket on a mission to the International Space Station. Thirsk will be aboard the station for six months, performing scientific experiments in addition to his duties as the crew’s medical officer and a robotics specialist. His presence means that for the first time the station contains astronauts from all five international partners in the project and is operating at its full six-person complement.

Just last week, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette launched into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour after five delays due to weather or equipment problems.

One of the consequences of increased space activity has been the growth of space debris. The $157 billion International Space Station – the most expensive object ever created in human history – was moved twice in the past year by NASA to dodge nearby debris. On the third occasion, the warning did not arrive in time for a manoeuvre and the astronauts were forced to pile into an emergency Russian escape vehicle and wait for the debris to pass by.

In January of 2007, the Chinese blew up a defunct weather satellite creating thousands of new pieces of debris. Indeed, it was considered to be the most prolific and severe fragmentation in the course of five decades of space operations.

In February of this year, two satellites collided at a closing speed of more than 35,000 km/h. Both were destroyed, creating more than 1,300 pieces of trackable debris. These pieces are part of the more than 19,000 human-created objects in space bigger than 10 centimetres currently being tracked by the U.S. military’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN). More than 90 per cent of these objects are dead satellites, spent rocket stages or other pieces of debris that serve no function other than to pose potential collision threat to the working satellites.

If sensor capabilities were improved to allow the tracking of even smaller objects, another 300,000 or more pieces bigger than about half an inch would be tracked. Astoundingly, there are potentially billions of still smaller pieces undetected, and given the dizzying speeds at which they orbit our planet, even a paint-chip-sized fragment could prove lethal to an astronaut on a space walk or a delicate satellite instrument.

On Oct. 4, 2007 – the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite into outer space – the Rideau Institute held a special session on Parliament Hill to raise awareness about space debris. Since then the issue has taken on even more importance. Canadian scientists, entrepreneurs, and government officials are worried about it because Canada has a very active space sector and a long history of space activity.

Debris mitigation aside, a conversation with any space entrepreneur will highlight other challenges facing the Canadian space sector. With so many new countries getting involved in space and so much new money being committed, the Canadian space sector is looking to the federal government for greater leadership. A recent $100 million budget increase is just the start. A 2008 report by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Auto Workers union concluded that the Canadian space sector requires $1.53 billion in new funding over five years to improve Canada’s performance in space. The report, Flying High: A Plan to Rebuild Canada’s Space Capabilities, noted that in almost every category of comparison between nations, Canada is falling behind. New entrants like India, as well as old spacefaring nations such as Russia and the U.S., are outpacing Canada in civilian space spending. As a percentage of the overall economy, Canada is spending less than every other G8 country except the United Kingdom: Canada’s 0.029 per cent of civilian space spending as a percentage of GDP is less than half of the G8 average of 0.068 per cent.

Canada already is making a contribution to the challenge of debris mitigation in multilateral forums such as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), which is developing guidelines on space debris and other important issues related to the peaceful uses of space.

Now is the time for the Canadian Space Agency to launch its long-term strategic plan. Such a plan, coupled with significant, stable and long-term funding by the federal government could yield even more success for Canada in space by laying out a vision for how it will recapitalize its space industry. Given the federal government’s focus on investing in projects with immediate impact, investment in space research may not seem as urgent or politically sexy.

However, the record has shown that space-based research has yielded much success for Canada, not to mention tremendous national pride. Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Canadarm?

Anthony Salloum is senior consultant to the Rideau Institute on international affairs and Canadian consultant to the Secure World Foundation, a U.S.-based non-profit.
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Tags: Anthony Salloum, Space