To solve space traffic woes, look to the high seas – MIT Technology Review

Can you start off by giving me the lay of the land of space traffic management and space situational awareness today? How would you evaluate how well the world currently does these things?

Space traffic management is very much an emerging field. Were in the early stages, where the discussions in the international community are in the development of norms and standards of behavior. The fundamental purpose of space traffic management is to prevent collisions in space. Collisions, by their nature, are debris-generating events, which cause the domain itself to become polluted and less safe for future actors. So its twofoldits not just that a collision damages satellites; a collision also causes long-term damage to the environment itself. And we see that very clearly in all of the evaluations of the [2009]Iridium-Cosmos collision.

Space situational awareness is a different thingits about providing data. Different countries and companies around the world detect where these objects are in orbit and share whats out there. For 50 years, you didnt really need much information other than [the location of debris so it can be avoided]. But as the orbital domain becomes more congested with junk, its not just a question of How do you avoid debris? Its now How do you interact with other [satellite] operators up there? When theres two maneuverable satellites that want to be in the same place at the same time, thats when you get to that question of management rather than space situational awareness.

Ive been on a quest to find an authoritative reference that talks about the process from end to end. I wish I could say, Go to this resource, and itll show you what happens from the time they look for a close approach to the time that the decision is made for whether or not to maneuver a satellite. But its a bit opaque. Different operators have different internal processes that they dont necessarily want to share.

The US Space Forces 18th Space Control Command Squadron is constantly watching the skies and reevaluating the situation every eight hours. If they detect that a close approach is possible, theyll issue a conjunction alert to the owner-operator of the satellite. Then it goes into the hands of the owner-operator to decide what to do with that information. And then the 18th will continue to monitor things. The projection of where something might be in space varies wildly based on the object, how its shaped, how it reacts to the atmosphere around it If theres any intention by the operator to move it on purpose, that changes the observations as well.

All of the worlds international airspace is designated to a single entity state for the purposes of providing air traffic control services. So, for example, the US controls 5 million square miles of domestic airspace but 24 million square miles of international airspace. They are the sole authority to provide those air traffic control services in that airspace by virtue of the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization].

Space doesnt have anything like that. But the high seas dont have that either. What the high seas have is a collection of agreed-upon rules of behavior and the authority over each vessel: the state under which the vessel flag is flown. Theres not a high-seas authority that says yes or no, you can operate here and you cant operate here. Everyone has access to this shared resource, and the principles of freedom of the sea include the freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, freedom to lay cables underneath, freedom of fishing. Within the maritime agreements, there is freedom to conduct commercial activities. This is different from airspace, which historically has been an area purely for transportation.

The orbital domain is not solely for transportation [either]. Its the domain in which the commercial activity occurs: telecommunications, remote sensing, etc.

Of course, maritime law is also meant to prevent collisions on the high seas. Collision regulations, or colregs, dictate whats supposed to happen if two vessels are [on course for] a head-on collision: who has priority to maneuver, what to do if something happens in a narrow channel These sort of principles are laid out very clearly. They have very clear applicability to the challenges were facing in the space domain. There are very clear parallels. Whereas if we take the aviation model, were really trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

I think its trending that way, by virtue [of the fact] that its really the only viable path forward, but there is always discussion. Having someone or some singular body decide what we can do is not a realistic outcome, given the nature of the space domain. We dont do space traffic like air traffic because its not simply a safety question. It is a diplomatic question and an economic question as well.

Giving control of space traffic to one regulatory body would be easy, like the 18th Space Control Squadron, which provides these services free of charge. But there are countries that are suspicious of that [idea]. And then, of course, there is the issue of classified data. So you get into these complexities of trustyou know, if there was one trusted global entity, then sure, we could do that. [But] there arent any that are trusted by all, and trust is something that changes over time.

So the path forward is to create a way for that information to be shared and trusted. For example, Im working on a project where were talking about blockchain as an enabler for trusted information sharing. By nature of the blockchain, you can determine who inputted the information and validate them as a legitimate participant, and that information cant be altered by a third party.

I would argue that space isnt actually the Wild West. There is an obligation in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty for states to supervise objects that they permit to launch from their countries. So its not unregulated; its not completely free. Its just we havent agreed on what that actually means for continuing supervision.

The Iridium-Cosmos accident was a wake-up call. It sparked a lot of activity, like the development ofon-orbit servicing technologytodispose of big objectsthat remain in space, and also the development ofcommercial sensor networksso that we can have better and better space situational awareness information.

The next big catalyst, I believe, is megaconstellations. Were seeing more [potential collision] alerts between two maneuverable satellites, which is a solvable problem if we have a set of rules. This creates a lot of pressure on the system to start reaching these agreements.Capitalism is a pretty effective motivator. When people see more and more economic opportunities in popular orbits, then balancing access to those orbits becomes a motivator as well.

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To solve space traffic woes, look to the high seas - MIT Technology Review

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