Europeans Launch Program to Track Orbital Space Junk

Wary of the multitude of satellites in earth's orbit, the European Space Agency has begun a program to monitor space debris and set up uniform standards to prevent future collisions far above the planet, an official said Monday.

The $64 million)program — dubbed Space Situational Awareness — aims to increase information for scientists on the ground about the estimated 13,000 satellites and other man-made bodies orbiting the planet, ESA space debris expert Jean-Francois Kaufeler told reporters.

The program was launched in January. On Feb. 10, the collision of two satellites generated space junk that could circle Earth and threaten other satellites for the next 10,000 years.

"What the last accident showed us is that we need to do much more. We need to be receiving much more precise data in order to prevent further collisions," Kaufeler said of the collision.

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The smashup happened 500 miles over Siberia and involved a derelict Russian spacecraft designed for military communications and a working satellite owned by U.S.-based Iridium, which served commercial customers as well as the U.S. Defense Department.

A key element of the program is to increase the amount of information shared worldwide between the various space agencies, including NASA and Russia's Roscosmos, Kaufeler said.

Kaufeler also said that another aspect that must be examined is establishing international standards on how debris is described, tracked and, if needed, moved so as to prevent any collisions.

U.S. and Russian officials traded shots over who should be blamed for the collision that spewed speeding clouds of debris into space, threatening other unmanned spacecraft in nearby orbits.

No one has any idea yet how many pieces of space junk were generated by the collision or how big they might be. But the crash scattered space junk in orbits 300 to 800 miles above Earth, according to Maj. Gen. Alexander Yakushin, chief of staff for the Russian military's Space Forces.

Experts in space debris will meet later this week in Vienna at a U.N. seminar to come up with better ways to prevent future crashes, and the 5th European Conference on Space Debris in March at ESA.

"We need more precision in space," said Kaufeler. "The current measurements (of space debris) are not precise enough."

He noted that neither ESA nor NASA were able to predict last week's collision, although his scientists have been warning for two decades that such an accident could happen.

"The problem of space debris is unique," said Kaufeler. "We need to work together, we need to unify our forces if we are going to solve it."

Also this year, the Europeans plan to launch two new telescopes into space to study the far reaches of space.

The Planck telescope will map background radiation that fills space, while the Herschel space telescope will give astronomers a view of far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths.