The hit Hollywood film "Gravity" may be fictional, but the space debris problem it depicts is real.
Experts gathered May 9 at a US House of Representatives hearing called "Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life Gravity," warning others of the imminent dangers space debris poses to space travelers and satellite operation if rules aren't established to control these whizzing pieces of metal.
The panel's agenda was a request by the Federal Aviation Administration for more authority over commercial satellite operators, including the authority to order evasive action to avoid collisions, according to The Guardian.
"Orbital debris, or space junk as it is sometimes called, is not science fiction. It is a growing problem," Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson said in her opening remarks, Yahoo News reported.
The Department of Defense's Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) currently tracks some 23,000 objects in low-Earth orbit. NASA estimates that roughly 500,000 pieces of space junk larger than a marble circle the planet, some as small as flecks of paint, and race around at speeds of 17,500 mph.
Former NASA shuttle astronaut George Zamka recalls his own experiences dodging space debris.
"During my two space missions, we flew upside down and backwards to protect our shuttle windows from orbital debris. And even doing that, we had debris strikes and cracks in our windows," he told a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on Friday, Florida Today reported.
Not only have NASA astronauts and the International Space Station had to duck from debris but also two major events have added to the problem.
China's 2007 anti-satellite test, which intentionally used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,000 pieces to the debris problem, NASA reported. And the 2009 collision between two unmanned spacecraft, one a defunct Russian satellite and the other a US communications satellite, added even more debris.
No US agency currently holds the authority to apply evasive maneuvers, and it is unclear what agency could hold an authority that would apply worldwide, according to The Guardian.
But this is an issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.
"As the barriers to access space are lowered, the number of actors is expected to increase, and our ability to carry out our missions will become progressively more difficult," said Lieutenant General John W Raymond, commander of the Pentagon center focused on space command.
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