Date: Sept. 1, 2011
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NASA Needs Strategic Plan to Manage Orbital Debris Efforts; Risks Increasing for Satellites, Space Station
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
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,
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Pre-publication copies of Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board
Committee on the Assessment of NASA's Orbital Debris Programs
Donald J. Kessler (chair)
Senior Scientist for Orbital Debris Research
George J. Gleghorn1 (vice chair)
Vice President and Chief Engineer
TRW Space and Technology Group (retired)
Kyle T. Alfriend1
Michael J. Bloomfield
Vice President and General Manager of Space Systems
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Booz Allen Hamilton
Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Journal of Space Law;
Roger E. Kasperson2
Research Professor and Distinguished Scientist
Senior Research Astrodynamicist
Analytical Graphics, Inc.
Center for Space Standards and Innovation
Molly K. Macauley
Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow
Resources for the Future
Integrity Applications Inc.
Professor and Chair
Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF