In space swarms of debris

“Dangerous.” Irresponsible. » The outraged reactions from the United States and NATO flared up after the anti-satellite missile launch, which Russia carried out on 15 November.

→ ANALYSIS. Anti-satellite missile: space, a new battlefield for the great powers?

By destroying one of its own defunct satellites, Russia deliberately generated “more than 1,500 traceable recyclable waste and is likely to generate hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces of recycled waste,” said the head of US diplomacy, Antony Blinken.

“This Russian shooting is not illegal”

“This Russian launch is not illegal in the absence of global legislation governing the use of space, but it goes against the best practices that states have committed themselves to respect, in particular through the Space Waste Prevention Directive, adopted by the United Nations. Nations in 2007 “, notes Philippe Achilleas, specialist in space law at the University of Paris-Saclay. “This Directive shall in particular exclude any deliberate explosion in orbit”, says the researcher.

→ MAINTENANCE. “We need international rules on space waste”

Because while they spin at around 28,000 km / h, even small objects turn into potentially destructive race cars. The risks are real: this is evident from the various impacts that have occurred on launch vehicles, or the need for the International Space Station (ISS) to deviate from its orbit several times to avoid a collision. An accident even occurred in February 2009 between the old Russian military satellite Cosmos and an Iridium telecommunications satellite.

Faced with the new swarm created by the Russian fire, the seven astronauts from the space station had to prepare for a possible emergency evacuation in the event that a collision had caused damage during the first two passes around the cloud of debris. “Because the station crosses or passes it every ninety minutes”said Antony Blinken.

Millions of waste in circulation

Since the launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, space – though enormous – has been tainted with debris. According to the Space Debris Office of the European Space Agency (ESA), there are 34,000 objects larger than ten centimeters in orbit – including 4,550 satellites – but also 900,000 objects from one to ten centimeters and 130 million larger small ones.

→ READ GEN. The ISS again deviates from its orbit to avoid debris from a rocket

Every year for twenty years, ESA has recorded an average of twelve to thirteen unintentional fragmentations that generate waste after a collision, an explosion (voluntary or not) of a satellite or a simple resolution due to hostile conditions in space. “The United States has the best space mapping expertise to track satellite orbits and junk to avoid collisions,” points out Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, space policy scientist at EHESS.

“Good practice is spreading”

Opportunity for the calendar: On 13 November, during the Paris Peace Forum, space agencies and satellite operators in particular launched the “Net Zero Space” initiative. It’s about making commitments “Quickly reduce the amount of waste in orbit around the Earth”, to “guarantee the security of space operations”. This initiative is comingat a time when appetite in place, between constellations of satellites and private flights, is becoming more and more voracious.

In this case, France is a model country: in 2008, it passed a law banning the production of waste. “Batteries and tanks are discharged when the satellites reach the end of their service life and must be desorbed in less than twenty-five years”, explains Pierre Omaly of the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes). The satellites burn up as they rub against the atmosphere, and they are oriented so that their last debris falls into the Pacific Ocean, far from any inhabited space. “This good practice is spreading, but we have to wait for the life of these virtuous satellites to expire to measure the impact of the rules,” he said. adds the expert.

→ LEADER. Anti-satellite missile: aggression and ammunition

But France, the fourth contributor to space, does not weigh heavily with its 3% or 4% of space objects, when the United States, Russia and China together make up more than 90% of waste objects. “All operators have an interest in preserving the space, but how far are they willing to pay the price for good practice?” asks Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. For Philippe Achilleas, it may be a great misfortune for the international community to stand up against the wall and impose binding practices.

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