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Minor damage to the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the International Space Station, presumably from a debris strike, is the latest examine of the hazards posed by space debris. (credit: NASA/CSA)

Global space traffic management measures to improve the safety and sustainability of outer space

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Relying on space being “big” is no longer an option. More than 3,000 satellites operate in Earth orbit along with hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris. In October 2020, 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. Inspections in May of this year revealed that a piece of debris had hit Canadarm2, the International Space Station’s robotic arm.

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.

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. Among other factors, a strong global 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, points of contact from organizations such as the Space Generation Advisory Council and other professional organizations 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 SSA

Informed by data from radars and telescopes, space situational awareness is the characterization of space objects and their operational environment. Because of this function, SSA is a foundational part of a space traffic management system. However, there are concerns that current SSA capabilities around the world are not enough to keep up with the growth of space objects and debris, making collision predictions unreliable. 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 US Department of Defense, can be achieved by collecting data from commercial and civil entities and from different countries, paying special attention to data directly from operators, which is usually of high quality and includes maneuver plans. 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.

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.

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 information such as orbits, spacecraft physical characteristics, whether their spacecraft are maneuverable, and incidents that their spacecraft might have encountered, with other operators as well as with institutions that handle SSA databases and that 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, non-maneuverable objects and debris pose much of the risk of collision in orbit. 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. 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.

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, and 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.

Multidisciplinary approach

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.

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