VP Pence: Commerce Department will oversee new space debris policy

Key Points
  • Vice President Mike Pence announces latest recommendations on space policy from the National Space Council.
  • The reforms look to tackle the persistent problem of space debris in orbit around the Earth.
Vice President Mike Pence
Brian Snyder | Reuters

Vice President Mike Pence announced Monday the latest set of recommendations on space policy, this time looking to tackle the persistent problem of space debris in orbit around the Earth.

"The National Space Council has developed the first comprehensive space traffic management policy, which we will soon be sending to the President's desk for his approval," Vice President Mike Pence at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness, for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense," Pence said.

The vice president referenced the more than 23,000 objects in space around the Earth that the U.S. military is already tracking. However, these public catalogs account for only 4 percent of the objects in space, according to AGI, a company which provides software to commercial and government entities to analyze and track objects.

Moving at thousands of miles per hour in orbit, objects 2 centimeters or larger are capable of causing catastrophic damage to anything that gets in the way. Today's technology can track objects in space about the size of 10 centimeters, according to AGI.

Catalyzed by incidents in the late 2000s, both commercial and military entities are working to solve the growing space debris problem. The military was first put on high alert that space debris must be combated after a Chinese military test in 2007. Commercial entities were put on notice when, in 2009, a dead Russian military satellite shattered a $50 million Iridium telecommunications satellite.

"And the volume of space traffic will only increase in the years ahead," Pence said. "A stable and orderly space environment is critical to the strength of our economy and the resilience of our national security systems."

Pence's new recommendations are designed to be a "comprehensive" streamlining of how the issue of space debris is regulated, he said. The new policy will "encourage" companies to "partner with the government to develop data sharing systems, technical guidelines and safety standards," according to Pence. The new rules are intended to take weight off of the Pentagon, moving the regulatory authority instead to the Commerce Department.

"So that our military leaders can focus on defending and protecting our national security assets in space," Pence said.

Pence also repeated Trump's idea for creating a new branch of the military dedicated to the final frontier. Trump first floated his idea for a theoretical new branch, dubbed the "Space Force," while addressing an audience of service members in March.

"Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea," Trump said. "We have the Air Force, we'll have the space force."

Trump's new military strategy in space is to make sure the United States retains its "rightful role as the world's leading space-faring nation," Pence said.

Pence singled out Russia and China in his speech. He said Trump has "directed the Department of Defense to strengthen the resilience" of United States' space systems in response.

"[This executive direction is] to deter and defeat the threats posed by Russia and China's aggressive pursuit of anti-satellite capabilities," Pence said.