A just released National Research Council report on space junk, Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: an assessment of NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris programs, describes in great and worthwhile detail the increasing problem of orbital debris as well as the technical and budgetary problems that exist for removing it. It is especially worth reading for the stories, such as when a Colorado hiker heard a high-pitched sound and then found a still warm thirty-inch diameter sphere in a foot deep crater. The object turned out to be a titanium tank from a Russian upper stage rocket, launched two months earlier.
What I want to focus on here, however, is one issue the report discusses that, as far as I can tell, has generally been missed. Worse, this issue — somewhat ridiculous when you think about a little — will make removing most of the space junk in Earth orbit far more complicated than ever imagined by engineers.
Simply put, under already agreed-to international treaties, no nation can salvage or collect any debris placed in orbit by another nation. To do so will violate international law, and almost certainly cause an international incident. To quote the report:
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