Experts Say Much More Required to Avoid Satellite Collisions, Space Debris

Space debris

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Senate and House committees held hearings on consecutive days last week about space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM), i.e., the ability to accurately track objects in Earth orbit and to avoid dangerous collisions that could knock out satellites and even render entire orbits unusable.

The overall conclusion was that, although progress is being made, we’re not nearly as aware as we need to be as orbital debris poses an ever bigger problem and companies prepare to launch tens of thousands of new satellites.

“Near Earth space is geo-politically contested, it’s commercially contested and it’s in dire need of environmental protection because it is a finite resource,” said Moriba Jah, an associate professor of astronautics at the University of Texas.

Jah told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that space is poorly monitored and observational data are not shared very well between parties with vested interests.

“We speak about space traffic management, except that we can’t manage what we don’t know, and we don’t know what we don’t measure,” he said.

There is a lack of international standards about how to measure the risk of collisions or to limit the creation of new debris, Jah said. The majority of satellites remain in orbit long after their operational lives are over.

There is no protocol for determining which party should move its satellite to avoid an accident — an expensive procedure that can shorten the life of a spacecraft by using its limited fuel.

In 2009, the defunct Cosmos 2251 satellite and the Iridium 33 satellite collided in Earth’s orbit. A Livermore visualization shows the orbits of the two satellites prior to the collision among the thousands of other satellites in low-Earth orbit. The collision occurred where the two orbital paths cross near the North Pole. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Not all objects can be moved out. Last month, a dead NASA satellite narrowly avoided colliding with a dead U.S. Air Force spacecraft. The accident could have created 12,000 new pieces of space debris.

“Do we really want to get into this game of chicken? I’d would say, not so much,” Jah told the committee.

AIAA Space Traffic Management Space Governance Task Force Chairman Daniel Oltrogge told the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics that the problem with orbital debris is worse than is generally known.

“Today’s congested environment challenges operators to understand which conjunctions are too close,” he said. “The number of false alarms and missed alerts is overwhelming spacecraft operators to the point where they sometimes ignore the warning and go home wondering if they will have a job the next day. True story.”

Oltrogge, who also founded and administers the Space Safety Coalition, said only four percent of space debris capable of terminating a space mission is currently being tracked. New capabilities coming on line will raise the percentage of objects tracked and increase the number of potential collisions and false alarms.

U.S. companies have filed to launch 58,000 new satellites into orbit. That number is 15 times greater than any other country and eight times more than all the other nations on Earth combined, he added.

Oltrogge said there is fear of the Kessler syndrome — collisions between space objects that create a cascading chain reaction. The result could render entire orbital ranges unusable for years or decades to come, which would be an economic disaster for modern economies deeply dependent on satellites.

A Traffic Cop for Space

The job of managing space traffic is currently done by the Department of Defense. In June 2018, the Trump Administration issued Space Policy Directive 3, which outlined a plan to improve STM and to transition responsibility for non-military aspects to the Department of Commerce. DOD will continue to operate sensors to protect its assets and provide SSA data.

Kevin O’Connell, director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC), told the Senate committee that the bulk of his office’s $15 million budget request for fiscal year 2020 would go toward SSA and STM.

OSC’s current budget is $2.3 million. Congress rejected a major funding boost for the office last year.

Wilbur Ross

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wants OSC to be elevated from an office within NOAA to a higher profile bureau that would report directly to him and be headed by an assistant secretary.

Elevating the office and giving it responsibility for space traffic management and situational awareness requires the approval of Congress.

A bill authorizing these changes died during the last Congressional session. The bill has been reintroduced, but it has not cleared the full Senate yet.

A separate bill dealing with these same issues is pending in the House. However, that measure leaves open the question of whether the Commerce Department or the Department of Transportation will oversee these duties.

A key issue that emerged during the hearings was how to encourage the booming satellite industry while ensuring a safe operating environment in Earth orbit.

“Rather than imposing a top-down regulatory burden on an emerging sector, we should adopt a crawl walk run approach,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas).

Babin cited the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IASDO), which was formed in 1993, as an example of how SSA and STM could be handled.

China’s 2007 test of its ground-based ASAT missile destroyed one of its own defunct satellites in LEO. The graphic depicts the orbits of trackable debris generated by the test 1 month after the event. The white line represents the International Space Station’s orbit. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“NASA developed its own orbital debris guidelines that were eventually adopted by the entire federal government, and then accepted by most space-faring nations. as part of the IADC process,” he added. “The guidelines were consensus-based principles that inform spacecraft development and operations and could form the basis for developing rules of the road going forward.”

In the Meantime….

While politicians work out jurisdictional and regulatory issues, government officials are working with academia and the private sector to better track and manage space objects in Earth orbit.

Jah said he has worked with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding to establish a crowd-sourced STM system. Partners in the effort include the Commerce Department and NASA.

Jah’s University of Texas program has also become the first academic partner of the U.S. Space Command in the sharing of SSA data.

More government funding is required to conduct research into what objects are in Earth orbit and how they behave, Jah said. For example, all of the objects in the DOD orbital debris database is cataloged as spheres, which is not true.

Jah said $15 million in government funding would enable the expansion of existing research and allow for additional institutional partners to be brought into the effort.

O’Connell said efforts are also being made to improve international cooperation and establish common rules of the road on space traffic management, space weather monitoring, planetary defense and issues.

While the Senate and House were holding hearings last week, an inter-agency group was discussing these issues during the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) conference in Vienna, Austria.