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Tue, Feb 17, 2009

ESA Takes Initiative In Monitoring Space Debris

Launched Monitoring Program Weeks Before February 10 Collision

Last week's collision involving a defunct Russian satellite and an active Iridium telecommunications relay station over Siberia highlighted the dangers on-orbit debris represents to current and future satellites, and even manned spacecraft. It also showed how difficult it is to properly monitor the estimated 13,000 satellites and pieces of man-made debris now in orbit around Earth.

The European Space Agency is taking steps to address the situation. The agency launched its $64 million Space Situational Awareness program in January... and weeks later, on February 10, the world was shown why such a program is needed.

"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," ESA space debris expert Jean-Francois Kaufeler told The Associated Press.

Near the top of the priorities list for SSA are better communication and information sharing between ESA, NASA, and Russia's Roscosmos about locations of each agency's orbital probes and vehicles. At best, such information is now given only in rough estimates... and even those figures may be nebulous if the object in question is tied to intelligence-gathering.

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

Kaufeler and other experts in space debris will meet this week in Vienna, at a UN seminar called specifically to address those concerns. The 5th European Conference on Space Debris will convene at ESA in March.

Experts hope a universally-accepted standard in information sharing may come from those conferences, in order to avoid a repeat of last week's on-orbit collision... which spewed debris in all directions, some pieces settling in orbits near the International Space Station and along trajectories used by the US space shuttle and other manned spacecraft.

"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."

FMI: www.esa.int

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