Space Debris Dilemma Raises Questions with New Moon Crater

A rogue rocket booster, silently orbiting Earth since 2015, crashed into the Moon on March 4, 2022, creating a bizarre double-crater. It sparked a flurry of questions and theories.

Was it part of a secret government program or perhaps a clandestine corporate satellite?

The truth, as it turns out, is not only fascinating but also a bit alarming. It opens a window into a potential future where space could become a battleground of conflicting interests instead of a peaceful frontier.

The Mystery of WE0913A

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Image Credit: Dima Zel/Shutterstock.

The rocket booster WE0913A (ref), initially a mystery, was identified as a remnant of China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission. This discarded rocket stage, drifting in space since at least 2015, collided with the Moon on March 4, 2022, creating a new lunar crater.

Astronomers linked its characteristics to Chinese rockets using trajectory analysis and spectroscopic surveys. The object, about 10 feet wide and 41 feet tall, was bright and tumbled in orbit, typical of discarded rocket stages.

Despite these findings, China denied any connection, possibly due to a miscommunication or to avoid appearing in violation of international space law. The U.S. Space Command confirmed the Chang’e 5-T1 rocket body never deorbited but couldn’t verify its country of origin.

This incident highlights the growing concern over space debris and the need for better tracking and regulations.

International Space Law & Its Shortcomings

International space law, while established, faces challenges in addressing the complexities of modern space exploration.

The Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967, foundational to space governance and agreements like the 1968 Rescue Agreement, are increasingly strained under current geopolitical and technological conditions.

These treaties, effective in maintaining outer space sanctity, are now subject to broad legal interpretations, failing to restrict the weaponization of space. The evolving nature of space activities, including developing counter-space capabilities and diversifying space actors, underscores the need for updated regulations.

The OST’s prohibition of weapons of mass destruction in space is insufficient against contemporary threats like electronic and cyberwarfare measures. The ambiguity in key OST terms, such as “peaceful uses of outer space,” further complicates its effectiveness.

Modernizing the OST and developing comprehensive rules, including legally binding transparency and confidence-building measures, is crucial for sustainable and secure space utilization.

The Growing Problem of Space Debris

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Image Credit: L Galbraith/ShutterStock.

The accumulation of space debris, exacerbated by incidents like the mystery rocket crash, poses a significant risk to satellites and future space missions.

This growing concern is encapsulated in the Kessler Syndrome (ref), a scenario where the density of debris in Earth’s orbit reaches a critical threshold, leading to a cascade of collisions. Named after NASA scientist Donald Kessler predicted this phenomenon in 1978, the Kessler Syndrome could render certain orbits unusable.

Currently, Earth’s orbit contains about 12,170 satellites, with nearly 3,000 defunct ones and numerous fragments from collisions and explosions. These objects, traveling at high speeds, pose a real threat, as evidenced by the International Space Station’s multiple debris-avoidance maneuvers.

Risk of Space Weaponization

The possibility of space weaponization is a real and growing concern. While the Outer Space Treaty bans weapons of mass destruction in space (ref), it leaves room for other types of weapons.

Concepts like the “rods from god”(ref) and the development of anti-satellite missiles indicate a trend towards militarizing space. This could lead to conflicts that create more debris and hinder peaceful exploration and scientific advancement.

The Need for Robust Space Governance

There is an urgent need for more comprehensive and enforceable international space laws to address the challenges of space exploration and utilization. The Moon Agreement (ref), developed from 1972 to 1979 and entered into force in July 1984, is a significant step in this direction.

The Agreement, an extension of the Outer Space Treaty, emphasizes that the Moon and other celestial bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, and their environments should not be disrupted. It also declares the Moon and its natural resources as the common heritage of mankind, proposing an international regime to govern the exploitation of these resources.

While the Moon Agreement sets a framework for responsible and equitable space exploration, it requires broader acceptance and enforcement to manage the emerging challenges and opportunities in space effectively.

As we stand on the brink of a new era in space exploration, the choices we make today will shape the future of this final frontier. Will space become a battleground for competing national and corporate interests, or will we rise to the challenge of preserving it as a peaceful, shared resource for all humanity?

The answer lies not just in technological advancements but in our ability to grow and cooperate globally.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.