Military to Congress: Help Us Avoid 'Gravity II'

The Pentagon's space commanders want help tracking the type of space trash that threatens rockets and satellites.

Lead 'Gravity' acress Sandra Bullock — whose character was nearly killed by rogue space debris — arrives on the red carpet for the 86th Academy Awards. (National Journal)

If America wants to retain its space dominance, it will have to invest in tracking the debris that has made Earth's orbit increasingly hard to navigate, military officials told a Senate panel Wednesday.

"This is a very serious problem, and I've seen nothing yet that will be technically viable for active debris removal," said Gen. William Shelton, who heads the Air Force Space Command. As a result, "we need better capability to track," he told the Senate Armed Service's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Shelton touted the Space Fence, a radar system designed to spot tiny pieces of debris and act as a first-warning system for collisions and other outer-space events. Sequestration shut down the current Space Fence, but the Air Force hopes to have a new and improved radar deployed in the Marshall Islands by 2018.

"Congestion and debris in space is a real issue," added Douglas Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy. "Programs like the Air Force's Space Fence are aimed at reducing that risk."

In addition, Shelton talked up debris-tracking satellites that will help give a clearer picture of low-Earth orbit. Along with better tracking, continued use of space will depend on countries being more responsible about leaving debris, Shelton said, describing a nightmare scenario in which "debris begets debris."