updated 2/12/2009 12:21:40 PM ET 2009-02-12T17:21:40

NASA and the military play close attention to the stuff flying around their spacecraft and regularly scoot them up or down to give passing objects wide berth.

But when it comes to privately operated satellites, there is no Federal Aviation Administration for space.

"There is no universal space traffic control," said Nicholas Johnson, an orbital debris expert at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"NASA works with the Department of Defense to look ahead and see if any debris or operational spacecraft are coming close to one of our vehicles, like the International Space Station, the space shuttle or one of our satellites.

"If we see something coming, we get out of the way, but not every operator does what we do," Johnson told Discovery News.

A communications satellite owned by Iridium Satellite collided with a defunct Russian spacecraft about 490 miles above northern Siberia on Tuesday. The crash created clouds of debris that could be even larger and more hazardous than the wreckage left behind by the explosion of a Chinese satellite two years ago in a widely criticized weapons test.

"We probably won't know until a few days. It takes a while for debris to spread out and for us to get a good head count," said Johnson.

Private companies can tap the DoD's orbital tracking information, but they would have to pay for it.

Video: Outer space satellite collision "It's up to individual satellite operators to reach agreement to get that service. We pay the DoD to do that service," NASA's Johnson added.

Iridium spokeswoman Liz DeCastro said her company has a contract with Boeing to maintain and operate its network of communications satellites and she did not know if any collision avoidance attempts were made.

"In terms of what could be done in the future, I'm sure there are lots of people at Iridium and in other organizations to see what are the possibilities," DeCastro said.

The U.S. Strategic Command, the agency responsible for tracking orbital debris, keeps tabs on about 18,000 objects in space around Earth, including operational and defunct satellites, spent rocket boosters and debris that is at least 3.9 inches in diameter.

Tuesday's crash, believed to be the first space collision, highlights on ongoing issue about how to keep space clear of debris for all agencies, governments and private entities that need and want to fly spacecraft. Soaring around the planet at 17,500 mph, even the smallest pieces of debris can prove deadly to satellites.

Johnson said there have been discussions in the past about requiring satellite operators to pay attention to potential strikes and make adjustments if necessary.

No doubt the issue will be raised again by the United Nations Subcommittee on Space, which is meeting in Vienna next week.

"I guarantee this topic will come up," Johnson said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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