Experts Say Urgent Action Required on Space Safety as Number of Satellites Soars and Orbital Debris Proliferates

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Urgent action is needed to ensure that Earth orbit continues to be a safe place in which to operate. And industry must take the lead because governments are moving far too slowly to address an increasingly serious problem.

That was the consensus of the panel of experts that debated the issue during last week’s Space Tech Expo. They expressed concerns about the growing number of large satellite constellations and the enormous amount of dangerous debris already in orbit.

Josef Koller, co-founder of the Space Safety Institute, said space is now a fully international arena no longer dominated by a handful of international nations. The figures laid out by Koller and his fellow panelists demonstrated how much more crowded Earth orbit has become:

  • 3,500 to 4,000 active satellites
  • proposals to launch approximately 100,000 additional spacecraft
  • ~750,000 pieces of debris capable of disabling or destroying satellites.

Victoria Sampson, director of Secure World Foundation’s Washington office, said nobody knows how many satellites can safely be operated in Earth orbit without resulting in interference, collisions and additional debris.

Panelists said there is no international space traffic management system to make sure satellites don’t collide with each other. There are no rules of the road for whose satellite should move out of the way in the event of a potential collision.

David Barnhart, CEO and co-founder of Arkisys, said companies want to put up as many satellites as possible and want others to stay out of their way. Governments must balance the need for a vibrant commercial economy in orbit with ensuring that operations can be done safely.

Barnhart said the International Telecommunication Union has been reasonably successful in managing communications spectrum. He questions whether there is spectrum capacity to support all the satellites that companies and governments want to launch.

The scales of the space debris problem (Credit: ESA)

There is fear of what’s been called the Kessler syndrome – a cascading series of satellite collisions that would produce debris that would take out an increasing number of spacecraft. The result could be to make Earth orbit unusable for all.

“What keeps me up at night is not the debris we can track, but the small pieces that we can’t,” said Tobias Nassif, director of the Space Data Association.

Panelists said cooperation within the industry is key. Koller said a model is commercial aviation, a fiercely competitive industry where companies share information on safety. He said the same is beginning to happen in the space industry.

Nassif said the Space Data Association includes competitors who are cooperating to make sure that their operations are safe and that their satellites don’t interfere with each other. Space sustainability is really in the best interest of the industry; otherwise, companies will go out of business, he added.

Nassif said that the pace of launches and the growing number of satellites are making it difficult to keep up. He also noted that satellites tend to stay in orbit a long time due to a rule that gives operators 20 years to de-orbit defunct spacecraft.

Barnhart said that while experts can talk all they want about space safety in the United States, there’s no requirements that governments and companies abroad follow guidelines and best practices.

Samson said that space sustainability has a negative connotation to foreign space professionals. They see it as a way by countries and companies that already have a significant presence in space to keep them out.

Koller responded that the messaging on space sustainability is negative and needs to be redefined. A positive, holistic approach is required.

Koller pointed to air traffic management as a potential model for managing satellites in space. Another model is terrestrial traffic management, which is done on a peer-to-peer level by individual drivers.

Laura Cummings, regulatory affairs counsel for Astroscale U.S., noted that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is developing an open architecture catalog that will contain space tracking information from multiple sources.

Although Cummings saw this as a positive development, she said that governments have talked a lot about how to address space sustainability, but they haven’t done much to date. She added that there needs to be a way to enforce standards and best practices.

Cummings said the space industry must focus on both mediation and mitigation. Mediation involves dealing with the 8,000 tons of debris currently in orbit. Mitigation involves preventing the creation of additional debris in the future.

Cummings suggested a market could be created for removing space debris. For example, a contract could be awarded for removing a large rocket stage from orbit. Astroscale’s business model is focused on removing debris and dead satellites from orbit. It currently has a test mission in orbit.

Barnhart said that while a lot of debris would be worth pennies on the dollar if returned to Earth, it would be worth a great deal if you can recycle it. Companies are developing technologies to do just that.