February 23, 2021.
By: Jamil Castillo.
WHAT SPACE TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT MEASURES SHOULD BE IMPLEMENTED INTERNATIONALLY TO IMPROVE THE SAFETY AND SUSTAINABILITY OF OUTER SPACE?
Note: This paper was submitted by our policy and digital communications manager, Jamil Castillo, as an entry to the 2020 Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) Space Safety and Sustainability Essay Competition. The entry was selected among the top 10 submissions.
Relying on space being “big” is no longer an option. Roughly 2,787 (UCS Satellite Database, 2020) operate in Earth’s orbit along with hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris. Just recently, a company that tracks objects in low Earth orbit warned about an old satellite and a rocket’s upper stage, both inoperable, that had a greater than 10% chance of colliding (Corbett, 2020).
Meanwhile, space has become central to our world’s very survivability, from planetary defense to helping to fight climate change. This criticality of outer space for humans all around the world warrants strong consideration for orbit sustainability. To maintain a space ecosystem that humans can use for years to come, space actors must be proactive in their measures as activities such as megaconstellations proliferate and as more operators and nations access space. To achieve an orderly environment, space traffic management (STM) will be crucial.
As defined in the United States Space Policy Directive 3, STM is the planning, coordination, and on-orbit synchronization of activities to enhance the safety, stability, and sustainability of operations in the space environment (White House, 2018). Among other factors, a robust STM system needs capacity building, improved space situational awareness (SSA), and national and international coordination and transparency.
Capacity Building, International Cooperation, and National Preparation
Because of the global nature of space, cooperation and communication will be key as we try to establish rules of the road to operate in orbit. Capacity building activities can include nations with more expertise or capabilities assisting those with less expertise in developing procedures for information sharing as well as providing awareness through workshops, competitions, and conferences. Associations of young professionals can play an important role in bringing awareness about space traffic management internationally. For example, the Space Generation Advisory Council points of contacts from different nations can host activities in which participants from different generations and places share knowledge.
For international cooperation to happen, actions should take place at the national level as well. Nations that are interested in space should start planning to establish policy and legal frameworks. Countries should designate points of contact that can liaise with other nations and serve as a voice in non-governmental organizations for purposes of setting standards and guidelines.
Improved Space Situational Awareness
Informed by data from radars and telescopes, space situational awareness is the characterization of space objects and their operational environment (Johnson, 2017). Because of this function, SSA is a foundational part of a space traffic management system. However, there is concern that current tracking capabilities that produce SSA data that is used by the majority of countries around the world are not enough to keep up with the growth of space objects and debris, making collision predictions unreliable (Peterson, 2018). In light of these concerns, some global SSA measures are listed below.
- Better Trackability: Improved software and data capabilities from different sources can offer useful insight to help avoid collisions in a crowded environment. Enhancement of SSA data, which is currently mostly managed by the U.S. Department of Defense, can be achieved by collecting data from commercial and civil entities and from different countries, paying special attention to data from operators stored in their vehicles, which is usually of high quality and includes maneuver plans (Peterson, 2018). The collected data should be curated and validated to ensure it meets quality standards and that it is free from cybersecurity problems. Establishing more radars would also be helpful.
- Transparency: As we work to build databases and improve SSA data, international transparency should be encouraged. Object and operator identification is a measure that would facilitate communication as more operators access space. Being transparent will facilitate such actions as communicating effectively about alerts to avoid collisions. Operators should be encouraged at the national and international levels to share their orbit information, spacecraft physical characteristics, whether their spacecraft are maneuverable, incidents that their spacecraft might have encountered, among other information, with other operators as well as with institutions that handle SSA databases and can provide insight such as collision alerts.
- Debris Control: Controlling the future growth of debris is crucial, as an increase in the amount of unmanageable or unknown objects can overwhelm an STM system. In addition, the majority of collision risks in orbit involve a non-maneuverable object or debris (Space Situational Awareness, Key Issues, 2020). One way to control debris growth is to encourage mitigation measures, which include designing satellites that minimize debris release and disposing of spacecraft that are no longer useful (Space Situational Awareness, 2020). Compliance with international guidelines such as the IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, and revision of such guidelines when necessary to keep up with new activities and space actors, is key. The international space community should also ramp up conversations about active debris removal, as the objects present in Earth’s orbit are already numerous enough to pose risk of collision (Liou, 2010).
Development of International Norms and Standards
Nations should cooperate on the development of standards that build on industry input such as best practices, which should eventually be integrated into regulations and law. For example, standards can be created about what would be the practice for maneuvering satellites when there is a collision alert; what happens when a satellite cannot maneuver; what should be the future of spacecraft design to foster sustainability; standards for transparency; among others. As we set measures and develop standards at both the national and international levels, we should also think about accountability for not complying with space sustainability norms and regulations. For example, there can be economic incentives where operators identified as “good actors” pay less for insurance or where “bad actors” pay a high tax to send their satellites to orbit.
As we develop measures for space traffic management, it will be important to consider a multidisciplinary approach. For instance, besides bringing together operators and government representatives, academia and scientific institutions should be represented in sustainability conversations and encouraged to develop mechanisms for improved space situational awareness, satellite features that facilitate tracking, and other tools.
The sustainability of outer space is in danger and we must act now. Besides more robust SSA, effective communication between the world’s nations that are interested or benefit from space, as well as capacity building regarding STM, will help us progress into the rules of the road needed for a space environment that future generations can use.
Corbett, T. (2020). LeoLabs indicates no collision of Soviet satellite and Chinese rocket stage. NASASpaceflight.com. https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2020/10/leolabs-tracking-high-risk-collision-probability/.
- Johnson, C. (Editor) (2017). Handbook for New Actors in Space. Secure World Foundation.
- Liou, J.-C., Johnson, N.L., & Hill, N.M. (2010). Controlling the growth of future LEO debris populations with active debris removal. Acta Astronautica, 66, 5–6.
- Peterson, G., Sorge, M. & Ailor, W. (2018). Space Traffic Management in the Age of New Space. The Aerospace Corporation. https://aerospace.org/sites/default/files/2018-05/SpaceTrafficMgmt_0.pdf.
- Space Situational Awareness: Examining Key Issues and the Changing Landscape: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. 116th Cong. (testimony of Dr. Brian Weeden) (2020).
- Space Situational Awareness: Key Issues in an Evolving Landscape: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. 116th Cong. (testimony of Dr. Ruth Stillwell) (2020).
- UCS Satellite Database. (2020). In-depth details on the 2,787 satellites currently orbiting Earth, including their country of origin, purpose, and other operational details. Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/satellite-database.
- White House. (2018). Space Policy Directive-3, National Space Traffic Management Policy. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/space-policy-directive-3-national-space-traffic-management-policy/