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Should the US government oversee space traffic? Some experts think it’s time

“If space development remains on its current trajectory, and the global community fails to advance an effective [space traffic management] framework, humankind will jeopardize its use of outer space, modern ways of living, and all the corresponding benefits on Earth.”
Outer space.

Story at a glance

  • As more private companies and military operations set their sights on space travel and exploration, lack of global regulations threatens the safety of these efforts. 

  • In a new report published by the Atlantic Council, authors lay out how the United States can lead the way in global space oversight. 

  • To do so will involve development of new standard definitions and operations, along with increased international cooperation. 

Although space tourism seems like a futuristic chapter for humans, the current lack of regulation around commercial rocket flights and space traffic — which has also increased as more countries bolster military capabilities — is a major concern for society now, experts say. 

For these reasons, and because an additional 25,000 satellites are projected to launch into space by 2030, the Atlantic Council is calling on the United States government to increase its management of space traffic. 

In their report issued this month, experts at the think tank urge the U.S. to lead a global coordinated effort to track space debris and spacecraft, regulate operators positioning of craft and oversee mitigation strategies for debris. 

“If space development remains on its current trajectory, and the global community fails to advance an effective […] framework, humankind will jeopardize its use of outer space, modern ways of living, and all the corresponding benefits on Earth,” authors Mir Sadat and Julia Siegel wrote.

The report comes as the U.S. Air Force announced plans in March to expand its abilities to monitor the space between the Earth and moon.

Currently, more than 4,800 satellites representing more than 40 nations satellite the Earth, according to the report.

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“As humanity expands its frontiers deeper into the galaxy, the threats to US and allied space capabilities will continue to increase,” Sadat and Siegel said. 

“Yet, despite the proliferation of space activity, the ability of international and national bodies to track and regulate space objects—often referred to as space traffic management (STM)—reflects a past era wherein few actors conducted limited operations in space.” 

Under current policies, STM may be better defined as space situational awareness (SSA), or just knowing objects are in orbit, they said. Currently, this knowledge mainly serves to prevent potential collisions and is carried out in a decentralized manner via operators. 

As more debris and activity flood already congested areas of space, the risks of collision increase and could jeopardize national security, Sadat and Seigel wrote. 

“It is no longer sufficient to know the location of spacecraft and space debris; instead, it is imperative to have a common understanding of and management over maneuver in a congested environment.”

Among the actions necessary to achieve this goal, researchers call for increased international coordination to develop global standards among those already pursuing space projects and those expected to join soon. Through this effort, the U.S. could help develop ways of holding irresponsible actors accountable, researchers suggested.

The Space Data Association could serve as a model for international regulation going forward, but the program’s opt-in nature limits its efficacy, authors wrote. 

The report also highlights the benefits of public-private coordination which could be achieved through a notice of public rulemaking or participation in the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group. 

Private corporations can play their part in ensuring active debris removal solutions are integrated into space exploration plans. 

STM deliberations should also prioritize elements such as defining relevant terms for universal usage; establishing minimum standards of conduct; assigning liability; distinguishing between orbits; and allocating responsibilities and authorities. 

The standards could draw inspiration from regulatory bodies governing both air and maritime travel and exploration. Certain technical capabilities will also have to be developed and employed to better track space objects and communicate between operators.

“While the US government is investing in capabilities for tracking and, when necessary, removing space objects from orbit, the United States still lacks a viable technical capability for STM,” authors wrote. 

“Currently, there are no integrated systems that can provide comprehensive domain awareness on par with the air or maritime domains for the space domain, which is more complex than the other two domains.” 

Overall, authors call on the U.S. to lead by example to ensure security, economic and societal objectives relating to outer space are met. 

“Now is the time to act and protect a future of security and prosperity in space,” they concluded.