NRC: Space Debris Has Reached Tipping Point, NASA Strategic Plan Needed

NRC: Space Debris Has Reached Tipping Point, NASA Strategic Plan Needed

A new report from the National Research Council (NRC) asserts that using “reasonable assumptions,” the orbital debris environment has reached a “tipping point” where debris will “continually collide with itself” creating more debris. The report calls on NASA to develop a strategic plan for its programs that address the problem.

The NRC report, “Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA’s Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs,” was written in response to a request from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) via NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. A workshop was held as part of the NRC study committee’s deliberations and a report of that workshop was published separately.

The NRC stresses in the new report that its study committee was not asked to comment on “the degree of the threat posed by meteoroids and debris, nor was the committee asked to determine which technology or path is best suited for the remove of debris from orbit.” Instead, “this study is more a review of NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris programs than an attempt to solve the threat posed by meteoroids and orbital debris.”

With its task so delineated, the NRC praised many aspects on NASA’s ongoing programs in what the agency calls micrometeoroid and orbital debris (MMOD). It notes that NASA does not have a single MMOD program, but “numerous program elements spread across NASA mission centers,” and recommends that NASA review the management structure of these activities to “achieve better coordination, provide improved central decision making, and establish a framework for setting priorities.” Its overarching recommendation is that NASA “develop a formal strategic plan that provides the basis for prioritizing the allocation of funds and effort over various MMOD program needs.”

The NRC also found that removal of space debris would cross “crucial national and international legal thresholds” and therefore NASA’s MMOD programs should engage NASA’s General Counsel’s Office and the State Department “regarding the legal requirements and diplomatic aspects of active debris removal.”

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