NASA needs to clean up some space junk, report finds

NASA needs a better plan to help satellites and spacecraft avoid space junk, which has reached a "tipping point," a National Research Council committee reported on Thursday.

There are enough pieces of smashed satellites, meteroids, and trash orbiting the planet to pose a real risk, the report says, and NASA lacks the staffing to deal with it properly.

Not only does NASA need a formal strategic plan for managing the threat, but the space agency may need to launch a project to clean up some of the clutter.

"The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts," Donald Kessler, chairman of the committee that wrote the report and retired head of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office, said in a statement.

The last time NASA looked at the issue, at the end of the 1990s, things did not look so bad.

But in 2009 two communications satellites--one owned by Iridium Communications and the other owned by the Russian Space Forces, collided and exploded over northern Siberia. It made a big mess and added 2,000 more bits to the flotsam floating in orbit. In 2007, the Chinese government destroyed a weather satellite in an anti-satellite test. Both greatly added to the space-junk problem.

At 17,000 mph, even a tiny piece of metal can penetrate a spacecraft's protective skin or tear a hole in an astronaut's space suit. And at that speed, a collision can blow apart a valuable satellite.

In June, a piece of space debris drifted to within 850 feet of the International Space Station, and the crew took shelter in Russian space capsules as a precaution.

NASA is tracking more than 500,000 of these bits and pieces--and 20,000 of them are larger than a softball.

The report says NASA has to re-think the management structure that deals with the problem.

"Nearly all of NASA's meteoroid and orbital-debris programs are only one person deep in staffing. This shortage of staffing makes the programs highly vulnerable to budget reductions or changes in personnel," the report notes.