February 5, 2014 7:03 pm

Last Survey Question: Who is responsible for damages caused by satellites and space debris?

NASA image showing orbital debris in Low Earth Orbit.

Orbital Debris in Low Earth Orbit. Image Credit: NASA

For our third and final question in our survey about “Who Owns Space” we journey out into low earth orbit, where, according to NASA, there are 500,000 pieces of space debris the size of a marble or larger orbiting the Earth at speeds of up to 17,500 mph.

Now if you saw the movie Gravity (if not, spoiler alert) you’ve seen the unintended consequences that arise when Russia’s destruction of one of its own satellites sets off a chain reaction, creating an orbital debris field that eventually destroys other satellites, the Hubble Telescope, the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, the Chinese Tiangong Space Station and who knows what else.

It’s reassuring to dismiss this by saying, “that’s just a movie” but in fact, something similar could have happened in 2007 when the Chinese destroyed one of their satellites as part of an anti-satellite missile test. According to the BBC, “the explosion created more than 3,000 trackable objects and an estimated 150,000 debris particles.” In 2011 some of these particles came within 4 miles of the ISS, close enough to raise concerns but not so close that the crew needed to evacuate the station.

And five years ago, on Feb. 10, 2009 a derelict Russian satellite, Cosmos 2251, collided with Iridium 33, a satellite operated by a US corporation, destroying it.

The problem is only getting worse. More and more countries and private corporations are launching their own satellites, and those satellites won’t be operational forever. Once they’re done, they become unguided hunks of metal like Cosmos 2251, joining the half a million pieces of space junk cluttering low earth orbit.

Which brings us to this week’s question in our survey about “Who Owns Space?”:

Are nations and corporations responsible for damage caused by their satellites and space debris?

Once again, we want to know what you think. Click here to vote and to see the responses to the previous two questions. Share your point of view in the comments. And be sure to read what other people say, if you want to join the conversation. Our other questions elicited some excellent commentary.

Remember, to see the results from last week’s question, and to vote in this week’s survey, click here.

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!

–Jeffrey Simons