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Why we need a trash code for outer space

Micah Zenko, 36, is no astronaut. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he is an authority on "space junk," the orbiting debris left by disabled satellites, rocket boosters, and manned missions.

Micah Zenko, 36, is no astronaut. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he is an authority on "space junk," the orbiting debris left by disabled satellites, rocket boosters, and manned missions.

Orbiting at thousands of miles per hour, a mere splinter holds the force to destroy a craft. So Zenko, concerned about the threat to the military and commercial satellites essential for modern life, in a recent CFR policy paper, proposed "A Code of Conduct for Outer Space."

Though 11 countries have space-launch capacity, U.S. spending dwarfs the rest, and 40 percent of spacecraft belong to American companies and the government.

In 2008, the European Union published a draft code of conduct "for outer-space activities." In this edited conversation with staff writer Michael Matza, Zenko says the Obama administration should endorse the European Union's plan as a first step to regulate "the contested, congested" vastness of space.

Question: Why should we care about space junk?

Micah Zenko: It's not so much the stuff that is going to land on us. There are 22,000 pieces bigger than a softball that the U.S. can track. [About] one piece falls back into the atmosphere per day, always burning up. . . . But a fleck of paint traveling 29,000 miles per hour can ruin satellites that control banking, cellphones, ATMs, weather forecasts, communications. They provide ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] . . . to battlefield commanders and the Pentagon.

Q: We dominate in space. What's in it for us to cooperate internationally?

Zenko: There are highly desirable orbits that people want. But we all can't go there. You have to work out ahead of time who goes where. . . . The U.N. Institute for Disarmament [does] some of this. Commercial space operators, operating bilaterally, try to do some. . . . Half the satellites in space can be maneuvered; the other half cannot. . . . If I have to move my satellite, I might lose a $25 [million] to $50 million investment. When two satellites are [predicted] to hit, how do we decide who moves?

Q: You support a code of conduct that is not legally binding. Why?

Zenko: Because [legally binding] would never pass the U.S. Senate. . . . Republicans [in particular] believe that anything legally binding could prohibit American missile-defense capabilities. Since a 1983 speech by Ronald Reagan, faith in missile defense as a priority for national security is just ingrained in every Republican. . . . The fact is [the proposed code of conduct] does not constrain us. But Republicans just don't believe that.

Q: The United States is not part of the European Union. How could we endorse the EU's code?

Zenko: Eventually, we will need something beyond the EU's code. But it is worth [endorsing] now because the issues are dire and America plays such a dominant role. . . . There are codes of conduct for conventional arms sales; there's the Hague Code of Conduct for ballistic missile sales. These are fairly common . . . under the auspices of one regional organization or body, and any [country] is allowed to endorse them.

Q: How are these matters affected by the increased popularity of global positioning technology? It seems every product we buy comes equipped with GPS.

Zenko: Given the number of people . . . using cell [and satellite] phones, for example, [companies] will put more and more [satellites] in space. [Space junk] puts at risk these platforms, and we need to do something about it.

Q: Why not just a massive cleanup to recover the junk?

Zenko: There are international principles . . . which hold that you cannot clean up other people's space debris.

Q: Why not? If you dropped a gum wrapper on Broad Street, I could pick it up.

Zenko: It's proprietary. It belongs to them. It could be sensitive. The United States wouldn't like it if one of our drones landed on the open seas [and another country] cleaned it up.

Q: But other nations do precisely that if they can get their hands on our technology.

Zenko: You are responsible for what you put in space. It belongs to you. . . . That's [the interpretation] . . . America prefers.

[Beyond that, a cleanup would be] incredibly expensive. . . . Some of this stuff is so small you can't even see it with a radar. . . . You need to pick up the pieces, and the flecks.

Q: Won't much of it burn up if it enters the atmosphere?

Zenko: Right. But the National Research Council [in a September report] said we have reached a tipping point. [Collisions between chunks of debris will create more debris and more debris. . . . A code of conduct is not just better than nothing. We have examples where codes of conduct in other global governance issues are much better than nothing.