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Obama's course correction.

Byline: Robert S. Bachelder

COLUMN: As I see it

Thanks to data from Envisat, the European Space Agency's large Earth-observing satellite, French scientists were able to alert American officials in May that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill had entered the powerful loop current flowing toward Florida. Just a few months earlier, though, because of a manmade environmental disaster in space, Envisat had experienced a near calamity of its own. When U.S. radar data indicated the satellite would speed by a discarded Chinese rocket at a distance of 160 feet - a hair's breadth in orbital space - it had to fire its thrusters in order to perform a collision avoidance maneuver.

The spent rocket was a leftover from China's test of an antisatellite weapon in 2007. When it struck its target, an old polar-orbiting satellite, the SC-19 ASAT missile with a kinetic kill warhead produced more than 100,000 pieces of orbiting debris, including some 2,400 fragments large enough to be tracked by the U.S Space Surveillance Network.

Over 100 satellites now pass though this cloud of space junk on a regular basis, including the flagship of NASA's Earth Observing System, the Terra spacecraft. Given the speed of orbital objects, a piece of metal no larger than a marble can disable a satellite.

There is no consensus among American analysts about the political or military rationale for the Chinese test. What is certain, though, is that China's repeated calls to establish an international ban on space weapons were rejected by the United States.

Unlike previous Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to President Carter, President George W. Bush rejected negotiated approaches to space security while promoting research and development of space-based weapons. U.S.-Chinese space relations were the last active venue of the Cold War, Professor Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College noted, and the diplomatic vacuum precluded any possibility of a treaty banning China and other nations from destroying orbiting satellites.

As physicist David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists recently told students and faculty at Worcester's Goddard School of Science and Technology, the key problem in space today is that "there is no sheriff."

The U.S. stands to lose the most with this arrangement because it is the nation most dependent on space-based technologies. If an adversary were to attack U.S. global positioning satellites, for example, it would disrupt telephone communications, power grids, and the financial system.

For this reason, the new national space policy released by the Obama administration at the end of June signals a welcome course correction by reopening the door to international cooperation.

While avoiding specifics, it affirms that Washington will "consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies."

The most important step the U.S. could take would be to negotiate a multilateral ban on the testing and use of antisatellite weapons that destroy their targets on impact and generate large amounts of debris. Such an agreement, observes Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists, would remove the single biggest threat to a sustainable space environment and would be readily verifiable with technologies already used by the Space Surveillance Network.

A formal treaty will take considerable time to negotiate, however.

The U.S. should begin right now to frame a code of conduct that would take the form of bilateral executive agreements with China, Russia, and emerging space powers such as India. These would include a prohibition against harmful interference with satellites along with commitments to debris mitigation practices and space traffic management. Such pacts would not be legally binding, but would encourage cooperation and responsible behavior among space-faring nations and pave the way for a treaty. A similar approach was successful in crafting rules of the road for civil air traffic and led to the creation of the International Civil Aviation Authority in 1947.

Diplomatic success in space will not come easily. China realizes a robust space program is essential to its economic and technological development and has a powerful incentive to safeguard the integrity of the outer space environment for future use. However, the history of U.S. relations with the old Soviet Union suggests that advances on space-related issues often are linked to progress on terrestrial concerns. Disputes between the U.S. and China on subjects ranging from Taiwan to trade and finance could hamper efforts to enhance space security.

In any event, orbital space is a valuable natural resource and must be protected from irresponsible behavior. Congress and the American people should support the president as he sets our national space policy on a new trajectory, one that substitutes the coordinates of internationalism and cooperation for those of unilateralism and military competition.

The Rev. Robert S. Bachelder is minister and president of the Worcester Area Mission Society, United Church of Christ, and director of its Goddard Project, www.protectouterspace.com.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 14, 2010
Words:827
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