News Flash – NASA Cuts Ties With Russian Space Agency

WASHINGTON – A NASA official announced yesterday that the agency would be cutting the majority of its contact with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. Citing Russia’s “ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in the Crimea crisis, Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O’Brien confirmed that communications between NASA and Russian officials would be suspended until further notice, with the exception of cooperation on the International Space Station.

Launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket, courtesy of Space.com

This break comes at an inopportune time for NASA; having retired the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, the agency has relied on launches of Russian Soyuz rockets to send its astronauts into space. While NASA has encouraged the development of private American spaceflight companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which has sent a number of resupply missions to the ISS over the past several years, Russia is currently the only provider of manned launches, charging US and European astronauts up to $70 million per trip.

Many in the agency have expressed frustration over the current state of affairs. Said one anonymous NASA scientist, “NASA’s goals aren’t political. This is one of the first major actions I have heard of from the US government and it is to stop science and technology collaboration… You’re telling me there is nothing better?” The announcement comes on the heels of a blog post by NASA administrator Charles Bolden criticizing Congress about the level of funding for US spaceflight. As Bolden wrote, budgets “are about choices. The choice moving forward is between fully funding [President Obama’s] request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians.”

NASA has few other options for getting its personnel into orbit in the near future. Although China has developed the capacity for manned spaceflight, current restrictions prevent NASA from hosting Chinese citizens due to fears of technological espionage. Development of the European Space Agency’s Crew Space Transport Vehicle isn’t slated for completion until 2020, and India’s human spaceflight program is only in its beginning stages.

Although perhaps better known for the competitive “space race” of the mid-20th century, the relationship between the Russian and American space agencies has recently been one of productive collaboration. From the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 to NASA’s visits to the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s, scientists have managed to mostly avoid the political tensions between the two countries.

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Cleaning House – Fighting Space Junk

You may get annoyed if a passing driver on the interstate litters your path with a soda can, but it’s unlikely to cause any serious danger to your automobile. Now, imagine that the can is flying toward you at over 3,000 meters per second (over 6,700 miles per hour) — and you’re flying a spacecraft instead of driving a car.

This is the danger posed to future astronauts by orbital “space junk,” the detritus left from earlier space missions that now circles the Earth without human control. NASA tracks over 500,000 pieces of debris, 20,000 of which are larger than a softball, including a number of full-sized satellites and rocket boosters. Currently, astronauts have few possible responses to encountering this junk: those in the International Space Station either perform a “debris avoidance maneuver” or, if they lack sufficient warning, hunker down in an attached Soyuz capsule that can serve as a lifeboat if a collision should occur. But aerospace engineers are investigating proactive methods that could eventually clean up the mess mankind has left in orbit.

Space junk in orbit above Earth, courtesy of NASA

Two of the most seriously considered technologies seem like they’ve leapt off the screen of “Star Wars.” The first, proposed by James Mason and his colleagues at the NASA Ames Research Center, involves turning the beam of a ground-based laser onto troublesome pieces of debris. A laser powerful enough to actually destroy an object would be prohibitively expensive (sorry, wannabe Vaders), so Mason instead plans to use the beam to push junk objects out of dangerous paths. Photons, the “particles” that make up light, carry momentum that is transferred to whatever they run into; this force is relatively tiny, but applied over the course of several hours, a stream of photons could nudge debris into harmlessly burning up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. It’s worth noting that the same principle could also be used to propel spacecraft, as has been explored by designers of “solar sails.

The second proposal, offered by Hanspeter Schaub of the University of Colorado Boulder, is eerily similar to the tractor beam seen in many works of science fiction. A satellite, which Schaub playfully acronymed GLiDer (Geosynchronous Large Debris Reorbiter), would emit a stream of electrons towards a piece of space junk, giving the debris a negative charge while the satellite gained a positive charge. This charge difference would cause the object to become attracted to the satellite and trail behind it; after the junk gained speed, the satellite would release the beam, launching it into deeper space. Although the process is relatively slow, an estimated two to three months per object, a collection of GLiDer satellites could make short work of the larger obstructions in geosynchronous orbit.

Space, in the words of science fiction author Douglas Adams, “is big — really big.” But in our neighborhood, useful orbits are limited, and carelessly cluttering them up may have severe consequences for future space exploration and development. These cleanup methods are a good place to start in solving the problem, but the message for space agencies should be clear — don’t litter.