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UN Discusses Reduction of Space Debris - 2003-03-01

Scientists meeting in Vienna under U.N. auspices have been discussing ways of reducing space debris, in order to make space exploration safer.

The scientific and technical subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space met for two weeks in Vienna to tackle the increasing problem of space debris.

A U.N. official says experts from different national space agencies have been working on guidelines for the design and operation of satellites, so that they will not create so much junk in outer space.

Satellites sometimes disintegrate or drop parts. The problem with much of the space debris is that it moves at several times the speed of a bullet, and can be so small it will not show up on radar. Scientists say space debris can be a greater hazard in outer space than meteoroids.

Some delegates in Vienna said it was even possible that the Columbia space shuttle could have been damaged by space debris. One idea under consideration by the subcommittee is to move satellites, such as those circling the equator, to a different orbital ring, a so-called graveyard orbit, where they would be out the way. However, the high cost of moving the satellites out of the way could be a main stumbling block.

Another proposal would ensure that fuel is jettisoned as soon as possible after take-off. This would reduce the risk of explosion in the event of a space collision.

The United Nations wants to devise a long-term plan using space technology in disaster management. This would use remote sensing satellites and navigation and telecommunication satellites, in order to map features in regions where disasters could occur, and to provide up-to-date images of any affected area. Satellite communications can help connect disaster regions cut off from the outside world, if the infrastructure on the ground is damaged or destroyed.

Some 60 countries are represented on the U.N. subcommittee on space safety.