Last week, the world was transfixed by the story of a gecko sex satellite that Russia lost contact with after it was knocked by some space debris. Apparently, it was the wake up call we needed as a species: Japan has announced the creation of a program aimed at monitoring space debris, a military-based project that will fight on the “fourth battlefield”.
Space junk is a way bigger problem that you might realise. There are as many as 3000 individual pieces of trash orbiting Earth right now, which sounds like a peaceful scene until you realise that each chunk is moving at an incredible fast speed, which turns them all into, in essence, randomly orbiting weapons — as depicted in the artist’s rendering above, which is obviously an exaggerated view of the problem. But it’s an incredibly dangerous situation both for astronauts in space and countries on the ground that rely on the satellites they have in the air, not to mention the billions of dollars spent getting them up there in one piece.
No one country or agency has taken ownership over the growing problem, but it seems Japan has decided to step up and take control. In January, it announced a plan to launch a space garbage collection net by 2019. Now, it’s creating an entire militarised force to monitor and control the debris field from the ground. The South China Morning Post reports that Japan’s Defence Ministry will run the program, acquiring an Okayama-based telescope and radar facility to do so, with the help of JAXA.
Right now, we know that this new force will track debris and share that information with the United States. Another main goal will be monitoring military activity in space, information that will also be shared with the US Strategic Command. In other words, this is our first step into a truly militarised space. But what we don’t really know is how Japan will deal with debris as they find it. There are dozens of proposals for removing it from orbit, including Japan’s own concept of removing it using a vast magnetic net, but none have been tested.
The Great Gecko Space Sex Debacle of 2014 might not be the only thing spurring on Japan. In fact, Japan bulking up on its space defence systems might be an analogue to what’s going on here on Earth, as the country bolsters its missile defence programs in retaliation to China’s own escalating activity. The SCMP notes that the 2007 incident in which China shot one of its own satellites using a missile — a first for space combat systems — may have been the impetus for Japan to start thinking seriously about a militarised program focusing on space.
Picture: An artist’s depiction of space junk, not an actual photo. AP/ESA.