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Obama plan boosts foreign, private space projects

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Monday outlined a space policy that offers an expanded role for foreign governments including possibly China and private companies in monitoring Earth's climate, tracking and removing orbital debris and protecting satellites.

The strategy follows President Barack Obama's blueprint for NASA that cancels the space shuttle follow-on program to return to the moon, hires private space taxis to fly crews to the International Space Station and seeds promising technologies for future human and robotic missions into deep space.

The new policy envisions collaboration with other countries -- including possibly China -- and with companies on new initiatives, administration officials said.

These include tracking and removing derelict spacecraft and debris from orbit and developing backups for key space technologies threatened by natural hazards such as solar storms or intentional interference, administration officials said.

"We want to be able to maintain those capabilities no matter what the conditions were," White House National Security Council space policy director Peter Marquez told reporters in a conference call.

"Bringing enhanced stability to space is a goal. We're trying to encourage responsible action," added Barry Pavel, the National Security Council senior director for defense policy and strategy.

INDUSTRIAL BASE

In addition to national security, scientific research and civil space programs, the Obama directive is intended to help "sustain and reinvigorate the U.S. industrial base," Pavel said.

Obama's initiative will impact plans and spending proposals beyond the space agency NASA, including the departments of defense, commerce and transportation and other entities that operate or use space-based equipment and services, officials said.

"It is clear to us now that our opportunities and responsibilities have changed," Pavel said. "We recognize that space is now more important than ever for the economy and national security, but also for the environment."

Pavel said the State Department will unveil "confidence-building" measures with other countries in the coming weeks.

The new policy "doesn't direct arms-control proposals, but it allows for our consideration of arms-control proposals," Pavel said.

Pavel added that the government is looking for new contracting, purchasing and "nontraditional" public-private partnering arrangements with companies.

"This is a very broad and over-arching policy and we will follow it up in coming months with more specific policies," Pavel said.

Removing debris from space could pose daunting challenges. The U.S. government's Space Surveillance Network tracks more than 20,000 objects in orbit around Earth, 94 percent of which are classified as debris.

The issue of space debris gained prominence in 2007 when China intentionally blew up a defunct satellite as part of a weapons test and with the collision last year of two satellites in orbit.

(Additional reporting by Alister Bull in Washington, Editing by Will Dunham)

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