Ed Campion Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1778


June 14, 1995

Lee Tune National Research Council, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/334-2138) RELEASE: 95-93 NEW ORBITAL DEBRIS STUDY RELEASED A new report on orbital debris has determined that the hazard to spacecraft posed by artificial debris, though still low, is growing and requires international action. The report also concluded that the problem needs to be addressed while it is still manageable and that the nations of the world should approach the problem with a cooperative, multi-pronged effort. The report was funded by NASA and conducted by a committee of the National Research Council (NRC). This study is part of an ongoing interagency review of orbital debris programs and policies presently being carried out under the direction of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The NRC's report suggests several steps in approaching the orbital debris problem. First, spacefaring nations should work together to fill in critical gaps in the data on the effects of collisions between orbiting objects and on the amount and sources of debris in orbit to better estimate the current and future hazard to spacecraft. Other steps include spacecraft designers being made more aware of ways to protect spacecraft against debris for example, by shielding critical components of the spacecraft. At the same time, designers should develop and implement ways to prevent future spacecraft from adding to the problem. Assessing the danger of orbital debris accurately is difficult because of the inherent problem of studying small, dark objects that are traveling at very high speed, hundreds or thousands of miles above the Earth. In lowEarth orbit only objects larger than 4 inches (10

centimeters) across can be tracked by ground-based sensors. In geostationary orbit, only objects larger than three feet (one meter) across can be tracked and cataloged. Objects much smaller than those presently cataloged can destroy a spacecraft in a collision. Even collisions that do not destroy a spacecraft can degrade its performance or cause it to fail. According to the NRC report, removal of existing debris from orbit is technically and economically infeasible, so international efforts should focus on preventive measures to reduce the future hazard. One step would be for leftover fuel or other energy sources to be dissipated from spacecraft and rockets at the end of their functional lives to ensure they do not explode. Other steps would include minimizing the release of debris during launch and on-orbit operation along with maneuvering rockets or spacecraft at the end of their functional lifetime either out of the low-Earth orbital region or into orbits that will carry them back into the Earth's atmosphere. In their report the NRC committee suggested that an international group is needed to advise the space community about the most important questions regarding orbital debris and how best to answer these questions. Pending creation of this group, the committee proposed a set of interim research priorities that includes: carefully studying uncataloged objects in low-Earth orbit; gaining a better understanding of small debris by orbiting spacecraft that carry debris detection experiments; studying debris in geostationary orbits, through both measurements or modeling and improving models of debris sources and changes over time in the amount of debris. NASA agrees with the concerns reflected in the NRC report and has taken the initiative to work with the major spacefaring nations to organize an international technical effort to develop a common understanding of the orbital debris environment and to develop techniques and practices to mitigate the orbital debris hazard. - end Editor's Note: A copy of the report, "Orbital Debris: A

Technical Assessment" is available for review in the newsroom at NASA Headquarters, 300 E Street, S.W., Washington, DC. News media who wish to obtain a copy of the report should contact the NRC Office of News and Public Information at (202) 334-2138. NASA press releases and other information are available automatically by sending an Internet electronic mail message to domo@hq.nasa.gov. In the body of the message (not the subject line) users should type the words "subscribe press-release" (no quotes). The system will reply with a confirmation via E-mail of each subscription. A second automatic message will include additional information on the service. Questions should be directed to (202) 358-4043.