In 1898 the battleship USS Maine exploded in Cuba’s Havana Harbour, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day. The US blamed the colonial Spanish authorities however, and the result was the Spanish-American War. Could a similar incident in space spark comparable political turmoil in our 21st century – or even armed conflict?
In a report due to be published by the space journal Acta Astronautica researcher Vitaly Adushkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences writes that impacts by proliferating space debris on military satellites “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.” He goes on to summarise sudden, unaccountable failures of defence satellites in recent decades.
It’s easy to see how military paranoia plus space debris could prove a dangerous combination. But the good news is that all the space powers are committed to tackling the debris problem, and sharing information on the problem to the limits of their capabilities. And here at ESA we are developing technologies to ensure future satellites are much less likely to spawn debris after their missions end – through our CleanSat programme – as well as developing a dedicated mission to remove an entire derelict satellite from a key orbit, called e.Deorbit .
This report gives a good overview of both the potential for problems and the solutions on the way: