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Space junk could get in the way of satellites being used in the Russia-Ukraine war

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Up in space, there's a growing trash problem. Bits of junk from broken satellites and used rockets known as orbital debris are hurtling at enormous speeds and threatening working satellites in their path. That's a threat to all kinds of services we rely on down on Earth, like weather forecasting and GPS. But it also has implications for national security and conflicts like the one we're seeing play out in Ukraine.

Saadia Pekkanen is the director of Space Law, Data and Policy program at the University of Washington, and she joins us now to discuss. Welcome.

SAADIA PEKKANEN: It's a pleasure to be here.

NADWORNY: Can you describe the scope of this debris problem? How big a threat is space debris?

PEKKANEN: So this is, of course, the very important threat that, as you pointed out in your introduction, affects all civilian, commercial and military operations in space. It is of particular risk to the United States because the United States is probably the most space-dependent power around. Relative to other powers, if anything happens to those satellites, it does affect the civilian, commercial and military capabilities of the United States.

NADWORNY: Let's talk a little bit more about that, how satellites have been used for military purposes. We've seen it playing out in the conflict in Ukraine. Give us a sense of how they're used.

PEKKANEN: They empower not just intelligence and reconnaissance and surveillance. They also, of course, affect nuclear command and control. They also affect our ability to be able to see what's going on on the ground. Now, probably like everybody who's riveted on the Ukraine conflict, what you can see is a huge amount of imagery that's come into the newspapers about what is going on towards the conflict, how the troops are moving, where they're moving, how the population is responding. And that is really a very transformative moment for thinking about the use of space assets to really build a very clear picture of what is going on on the ground.

NADWORNY: Are satellites a target for Russia broadly or specifically within the conflict in Ukraine?

PEKKANEN: Satellites have become, unfortunately, targets of anti-satellite testing by most of the leading spacefaring countries today. So it's not just Russia, which, of course, tests its capabilities last year, in 2021, you know, prior to what we are seeing now. But before that, India did, too. And before that, the U.S. did, too. And before that, of course, China did, too. So in that sense, the Rubicon of thinking about satellites as being, you know, harmless things that are helping humanity to sort of gain a better understanding of itself, they have potentially become objects of war.

NADWORNY: Yeah. I wonder, what do you think are feasible solutions to the debris problem?

PEKKANEN: Of course, there is number of solutions. There are solutions that are technology-based, that you can have technologies that are going out there to sort of zap or move or capture this debris and sort of think about bringing it down in a way that, you know, allows it to degrade naturally. The problem there is that most technology is, of course, dual-use. So the same technology that is used to sort of de-orbit or help or nudge a satellite, you know, to sort of burn out, is also one that, if it's your rivals, you can bump and degrade and move out of the way.

So, you know, there is always that problem with purely technology-centric solutions, which is why I think the emphasis on building the norms and rules and policies that go together with what is the distance before you have to take countermeasures between two approaching objects, right? Did you have the permission to sort of do that? And for that, I think you need to have a very open data repository that everybody can sort of look at and do, and I think that that's where we need to head in order to build a clear map of sort of what is going on. The clearer the map is, the more we're aware of the risks, the more we know where things are, the better it will be for spacecraft and their security and sustainability.

NADWORNY: Saadia Pekkanen is director of the Space Law, Data and Policy program at the University of Washington. Thank you so much for being with us.

PEKKANEN: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.