Report says space debris past ‘tipping point’
NASA’s space debris programs consist of a single staff member.
That second sentence is a bit of a misleading comment. NASA doesn’t rely on their own staff to track orbital debris. Space situational awareness does not typically fall within their scope. From this link:
The U.S. Strategic Command maintains a catalogue containing known orbital objects. From the earliest days of the Space Shuttle missions, NASA has turned to NORAD’s database to constantly monitor the orbital path in front of the Shuttle to find and avoid any known debris. During the 1980s, these simulations used up a considerable amount of the NORAD tracking system’s capacity. Other sources of knowledge on the actual space debris environment include measurement campaigns by the ESA Space Debris Telescope, TIRA (System), Goldstone radar, Haystack radar, and the Cobra Dane phased array radar.
If you want to read more about the history of orbital debris, there is this NASA report (pdf).
There is more info here:
NORAD is not responsible for tracking space debris. NORAD is responsible for warning the governments of Canada and the United States about threats to them, including space reentries that have a possibility of striking land in Canada and the United States.
Responsibility for tracking space debris rests with U.S. Strategic Command, specifically an organization called the Joint Space Operations Center.
For manmade objects, the U.S. Department of Defense operates the Joint Space Operations Center. The JSPOC’s primary objective in performing the space surveillance mission is to detect, track, identify and catalog all manmade objects orbiting Earth. The JSPOC maintains a current computerized catalog of all orbiting manmade objects, charts preset positions, plots future orbital paths, and forecasts times and general location for significant manmade objects reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, over 26,000 man-made objects have been catalogued, many of which have since reentered the atmosphere. Currently, the JSPOC tracks over 13,000 man-made objects, approximately 20 percent of those being tracked are functioning payloads or satellites.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I’d like to add that the United States Air Force 20th Space Control Squadron at Eglin AFB, FL, is responsible for the majority of JSPOC’s space tracking capabilities. The main operations floor is continuously operated by crews of 6 (3 military, 3 civilian) who utilize data from a series of radars (the “fence”) across the country. I trained with some of the space surveillance folks that are/will be stationed there. - spacedriver)