updated 4/2/2009 12:26:02 PM ET 2009-04-02T16:26:02

Researchers concerned about an increasing amount of debris orbiting the earth are calling for the active removal of space junk, saying it will ensure a safe environment around the planet.

More than 300 scientists and other experts who met for four days at the European Space Agency said Thursday that sharing information is a crucial first step in preventing collisions and predicting with more accuracy where derelict satellites may fall to earth.

"We need to share more data," said Thomas Schildknecht of the Aeronautical Institute of the University of Bern. "We consider this most import and challenging part for the immediate future."

Various international agencies track the refuse in space. The U.S. Strategic Command, which monitors space debris, keeps track of 13,943 orbiting objects 4 inches (10 centimeters) or larger orbiting the earth, and there are thousands more piece that that are even smaller.

But Heiner Klinkrad, of ESA, emphasized that, in the long term, the removal of derelict satellites and other unused spacecraft was essential if collisions are to be prevented.

Last month, a piece of space junk nearly smashed into the international space station. Scientists are still unable to say how narrowly the debris missed, but say it came dangerously close.

"Space Debris Remediation, or active debris removal from orbit, is a next necessary step" to ensuring a long-term safe use of outer space, Klinkrad said.

Although international standards exist governing what to do with disused or broken space craft, there is no way to enforce them.

Klinkrad praised commercial satellite users for increasingly dropping disused spacecraft to the so-called "graveyard orbit," lower than the path used by most satellites, but noted that as the number of satellites in orbit increases, the need for an effective removal system is pressing.

"There are many contributors to space debris, but there are not many volunteers to provide a service to bring them back down," Klinkrad said.

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