JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas, April 19 (UPI) -- Budget overruns are prompting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to end its 23-year-old Orbital Debris Program Office on Oct. 1, space agency officials admitted on Friday, even though orbital debris is acknowledged as a serious problem for the space shuttle, International Space Station and satellites in low-Earth orbit.
At 17,500 mph, even a fleck of paint can be dangerous for spaceships and satellites in orbit. A four-inch chuck of metal flying at the space shuttle could be fatal for any human in its path.
NASA as well as commercial and scientific satellite operators still have the U.S. Space Command tracking data for debris large enough to be spotted by optical and radar telescopes on the ground. The military currently tracks about 10,000 objects daily that are bigger than 4 inches in diameter so satellite operators can move their spacecraft to avoid being hit.
But clouds of smaller fragments born in rocket explosions, as well as other small objects hovering in near-Earth orbits, will be left largely unstudied as a result of the NASA office closing, reportedly for cost-cutting reasons.
"There were nine explosions in orbit last year and each creates more and more debris," said Nicholas Johnson, head of the Johnson Space Center Orbital Debris Program Office, which since its founding in 1979 has been modeling the small particle debris environment, issuing forecasts, recommending preventative measures and assessing risks.
"Radars cannot track small debris in the same manner as larger objects. We do a statistical evaluation, based on optical observations of particles as small as two millimeters. We can see them, but we don't know where they'll be tomorrow. We do assessments of probabilities of how many particles are at what altitude," Johnson said.
The analysis is one factor NASA takes into consideration when setting launch dates and times for the space shuttle. The research also has been key to identifying sources of orbital debris and setting national and international guidelines for debris prevention and mitigation.
"We're sitting here hoping that someone will find a solution," said Johnson. "This is a problem that's been coming for a long time. We're terminating a key capability."
A NASA safety advisory panel issued a report earlier this year calling for the agency to reconsider its decision.
"Over the last several decades, NASA has led an international effort to understand how the space environment is impacted by the presence of micrometeoroid/orbital debris," wrote the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.
"This work ... has provided a growing ability to track such objects and to maneuver spacecraft, including the space shuttle and International Space Station to avoid collisions ... Proposed budget cutbacks would eliminate funding for the activities of this group, (depriving) the shuttle and station programs of updated knowledge on debris risks."
Scientists warn that the orbital debris environment may become even more dangerous if the United States proceeds with plans to develop a space-based missile defense system -- whether from testing the system in space or in actual conditions of a missile attack.
"In science fiction movies like 'Star Wars' there are constant explosions, but a few seconds later the screen is clean. It's not going to work that way near a planet," said physicist Joel Primack, with the University of California, Santa Cruz.
"The space debris aspect of a 'Star Wars' missile system is just not talked about in the public arena," said Primack, who was scheduled to present a paper on Friday at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization headquarters in Paris.
"If we do this, we're going to create a terrible problem there's no easy solution for," Primack said.