A Startling Move in Space: Tension in Satellite Debris

Tension in Satellite Debris

In January 2022, space enthusiasts were taken by surprise when a Chinese satellite executed a remarkable manoeuvre. This satellite, known as Shijian-21, departed from its customary orbit around Earth and proceeded to rendezvous with a derelict spacecraft, Beidou-2 G2. What followed was a controlled flinging of the obsolete satellite into what is colloquially referred to as a “graveyard orbit.”

The Challenge of Space Debris

The decision to dispose of Beidou-2 G2 during daylight hours was a strategic choice. It made it challenging for ground-based telescopes to observe and track the satellite’s movements. This operation, on the surface, seemed like a commendable effort to address a pressing issue—space debris.

Over the decades, the realm beyond Earth’s stratosphere, encompassing the thermosphere and exosphere, has accumulated substantial clutter. This congestion consists of defunct satellites, discarded rocket components, and even minuscule fragments of spacecraft that have become dislodged. The consequences of this debris-filled environment are significant, as it poses an escalating threat to operational satellites, jeopardizing vital communication networks and global positioning systems.

Suspicions Surrounding China’s Move

However, not everyone viewed China’s orbital cleanup manoeuvre with pure goodwill. Some observers harboured deep suspicions about the underlying motivations. The ability to manipulate space debris could potentially be weaponized, giving China a strategic advantage in case of terrestrial conflicts. This unease reflects the burgeoning tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, as principal military powers engage in a new Space Race to protect their critical orbital assets.

The Emergence of Japan as a Space Player

Amid these concerns, there is a growing international call to establish protocols and regulations to mitigate tensions and misunderstandings in this largely unregulated domain. While historically, the United States, Russia, and China have dominated space endeavours, Japan has now emerged as a significant contender.

Japan has taken substantial steps towards securing its interests in space. Its military establishment recently created the Space Operations Group, and its civil agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), has collaborated with private enterprises to develop its space debris removal technology. In June, Japan unveiled its inaugural space security blueprint.

The Significance of Space Security

Yasuhito Fukushima, a space security expert from Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, views these developments as only the beginning. Japan’s new Space Security Initiative unequivocally recognizes the vital link between space activities and military superiority on Earth.

The Growing Challenge of Space Debris

Around 27,000 tracked pieces of orbital debris hurtle through space at an astonishing speed of 7.7 kilometres per second. Countless more fragments, too small to monitor, remain unaccounted for. If left unaddressed, the nightmare scenario known as the Kessler Syndrome looms, where a single collision in space triggers a cascading effect, resulting in even more debris and heightened risks for satellites and space activities.

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