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EU Seeks New Space Rules After Satellite Collision

After two satellites crashed in space, the EU called for a European code of conduct for civil and military activities in space. It seems unlikely that collision debris will endanger the International Space Station.

Artists' rendition of an Iridium satellite in space

The US's Iridium satellite, like the one shown here, hit a Russian Cosmos

Hours after news came out that US and Russian satellites collided in orbit over the Arctic, the EU proposed a voluntary pact that it said could help prevent environmental emergencies.

Crashes could lead to space becoming a site of conflict, the Czech EU presidency warned before the UN's Conference on Disarmament.

All those sending objects into outer space should "take appropriate steps to minimize the risk of collision," the EU told the conference.

"States conducting outer space activities should also refrain from any intentional action which will or might bring about ... the damage or destruction of outer space objects," the Czech EU Presidency told the United Nations forum.

A privately owned US communications spacecraft collided on Tuesday, Feb. 10, with a defunct Russian military satellite, according to US Strategic Command, which made the news public late Wednesday.

Event is a "first"

The collision -- which was not believed to be intentional -- occurred in a polar orbit not far from that of a defunct Chinese weather satellite that was shot apart by a ground-based ballistic missile in a Chinese weapons test in January 2007.

"This is the first time we've ever had two intact spacecraft accidentally run into each other," Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told the DPA news service. "It was a bad day for both of them."

According to officials, the resulting debris field of more than 500 pieces formed could pose a threat to other satellites. It would take at least two days before the size of the debris field could be assessed, NASA spokesman Michael Carey told the American broadcaster CBS.

However, experts believed there is little danger to the International Space Station, which flies in a lower orbit than those which collided.

burning shuttle columbia

Space is full of debris, like that from the shuttle Columbia

There was "no danger whatsoever" to the ISS, Alexander Worobjov, a spokesman for Russia's space agency Roskosmos said.

Russian military spokesman Alexander Yakushin was quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency as saying the debris field still needed to be examined.

The Russian satellite had been in space since 1993 but hasn't been in use for years, he said. The US satellite has been in orbit since 1997.

Problematic issue

Initial radar examinations by the US military showed around 600 pieces of debris in the wake of the collision.

Outer space is one of the many issues that has stymied the Conference on Disarmament in the past decade. It has failed to agree to launch negotiations on any major issue since clinching global pacts banning chemical weapons and underground nuclear blasts in the 1990s.

The EU's intended code of conduct, prepared in Brussels in December, would cover scientific, commercial and security work and specify reporting and notification rules to ensure safe, transparent operations.

The Czech Republic said the draft text could form the basis for an eventual agreement at the Geneva forum, whose 65 members include the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Israel.

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