The dangers of space debris orbiting the planet have been well documented in recent times but Russian scientists think that international tensions might boil over if accidents occur.
The scientists in question think that if an accident occurred in orbit, and some debris destroyed a satellite or a vessel of some kind, the incident could be treated as an attack. The worst case scenario might include armed conflict if a nation thinks that its satellite has been taken down by the enemy.
Experts have spoken for years about the inherent dangers of junk in orbit and warned that even the smallest pieces of space debris could cause harm to commercial and military satellites. Researchers have said that political tensions could quickly grow out of hand as there would be huge difficulties in diagnosing how a satellite was lost.
23,000 pieces of junk are currently being monitored by agencies in the US and Russia, although these are only the big bits. The real danger lies in the estimated half a billion pieces of junk that are extremely small, such as flecks of paint which might seem harmless enough, except that when travelling at 30,000mph and can cause extreme damage. In low orbit, this debris has the potential to cause real damage and as most satellites orbit between 100 to 250 miles above the surface.
The Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow have stated:
“The impacts from space junk, especially on military satellites, pose a special political danger and 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.” – Vitaly Adushkin
Adushkin goes on to talk about recent satellite failures that remain unexplained. He says that if a defense satellite goes out of action, the government has naturally assumed that it was caused by space debris. With the advancement of missile targeting systems and countries now having the ability to take out satellites at will, we might start to get suspicious of our powerful rivals if our systems start going down.
Tension has risen before in this area, when China flexed its military muscle and shot down one of its own (obsolete) satellites in 2013. They demonstrated their anti-satellite capabilities and added more than 3000 pieces of junk to the growing number of space trash. The Russians then lost one of their own satellites, Blits, as it was thought to have been impacted by some of the debris from the Chinese crash.
Adushkin went on to praise the efforts of some organizations that are attempting to clean up the junk. Japan has been leading the efforts so far but their latest venture failed when the craft sent up to collect debris failed mechanically and could not complete its mission. Ironically, the craft just added to the debris. Adushkin reckons that one of the big dangers of doing nothing is that the debris will continue to collide with other pieces of debris, making more debris.
I was interested to learn how the International Space Station deals with debris and you can find out more from this link. The station had to make 5 course adjustments in 2014 to avoid pieces of debris in orbit and it is constantly monitored to ensure the risk is minimized.