The space surrounding Earth is becoming a crowded place. More and more satellites and spacecraft launch into it on a recurring basis and leave ever-growing troves of hazardous floating debris—i.e., “space junk.” Managing all of this congestion and protecting space vehicles from colliding with the debris or with each other will require an unprecedented new level of space traffic management, according to a newly published, Congressionally chartered report by the National Academy of Public Administration. The report calls on Congress to fund a multiagency U.S. government effort to meet the challenge.
Out of Sight in space and Out of Mind?
“There is an old adage: ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ That phrase does not apply to the issue of the thousands of individual space assets and debris orbiting Earth. There is increasing risk of space collisions (called conjunctions) that impinges upon the safety of satellites,” the report reads, adding unequivocally: “There is a crisis in space.”
Approximately 2,800 satellites are now in orbit around Earth, according to the report. But it forecasts this number growing considerably as the “space economy” gains steam, with more and more private startups launching their own missions into orbit: By 2025, as many as 1,100 satellites could be lifting into space every year.
All this space activity means massive amounts of space junk, ranging from old decommissioned satellites, to loose hardware or surface fragments flying off spacecraft or the International Space Station. There are an estimated 500,000 bits of this debris now circling Earth.
Small Things Can Still Create Big traffic Problems
Some of them are as small as a paint chip. But even a tiny paint chip can badly damage a spacecraft if it hits it at a high speed. And it’s not just spacecraft that are at risk. Astronauts could be injured or worse if their vehicles are hit, and damage to satellites could instantly wipe out communications grids and navigational systems across vast swaths of Earth’s surface.
Already, ground control for any upcoming space launch has to scan the planned flight path carefully to ensure that there is no junk in the vehicle’s path. But ground-based monitors can keep tabs on only a fraction of the orbital debris, at best, and so the hazards to present and future space missions continue to grow.
“With the risk of orbital collisions growing astronomically, we face a crisis that must be urgently addressed in order to facilitate orbital safety and enhance commercial and research advances using this important domain,” reads the report.
The report recommends assigning a government agency to oversee space traffic management and foster public-private collaboration on researching and developing technologies and practices that will help reduce the risks. And it calls on Congress to fully fund this agency and its work.
Congress Steps In to weigh in on Space Traffic Problems
The Department of Defense has been tracking orbital space debris for the last three decades, but the surging debris problem has gotten too big even for Defense’s space systems to keep up with it all. In 2018, the White House issued Space Policy Directive 3, which assigned responsibility for “improving space situational awareness” and “coordinating space traffic management activities” to the Department of Commerce.
Congress subsequently asked the National Academy of Public Administration to write a report on the outlook for new government agency oversight of the space traffic-management challenge. The think tank was to contract with Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce on the project. This finished report was the result.
“One agency needs to take the lead” on space traffic management, the authors wrote in the report, and they recommended the Office of Space Commerce as the agency best suited for that task. But they do not want this department acting alone: “Several agencies must coordinate and collaborate in order to perform this critical work,” the report states.
They foresee critical support coming from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and other departments within Commerce and Defense. They also anticipate Space Commerce working with private-sector partners who could research and develop industry standards that Space Commerce could disseminate industry-wide—new plans for safer waste disposal, for example.
They could likewise devise useful technical innovations, like collision-avoidance systems to install aboard spacecraft. Equally important, these partnering companies can share their data on flight positions and maneuvers, so that all companies launching into orbit can be better aware of hazards and how to avoid them.
Space Commerce will lead all of this collaborative problem-solving and data-sharing, provide a forum for companies to share their innovations and knowledge, and offer incentives to encourage all companies to adopt them. The report describes the agency’s overall role as being less about top-down command and more about “convening” and leading these multiple partners in efforts to “collaboratively formulate ‘rules of the road’ that can serve to advance a safer operating environment for the diverse universe of space actors.”
Safety in the New Space Frontier
A hundred years ago, the nascent automobile industry was taking the country by storm. Highway construction was fast under way through cities, towns, and country sides. And as the roads and road traffic grew, so did the need for never-before-seen governing authorities to regulate the myriad moving automobiles and ensure they would crisscross the nation’s highways and streets in safety, with minimal harm to drivers, passengers, or pedestrian foot traffic.
We face a similar looming challenge today in space. As the space economy surges forward, and never-before-seen routes of commercial activity take shape in Earth orbit, the need emerges for new oversight to manage the flow of traffic for the benefit of all. The effort will have to be large-scale and long-term, but this report’s authors clearly think the U.S. government to be up to the task.