How should Space’s Traffic be Controlled?

space traffic control
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Space Traffic Control

space traffic controlDouglas Loverro, DoD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy, recently highlighted the need for the equivalent of an ATC for the satellites, manned and unmanned vehicles and debris which orbits the globe IN SPACE. The need is there, no doubt, but the organization which assumes this responsibility deserves considerable domestic and international discussion.

Certainly, the suggestion that this function that the FAA should receive this assignment should be challenged.

The job of tracking, not controlling, the Low Earth Orbit and Higher Earth Orbit (which includes the densely occupied and highly desirable Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) environments is held by the US Air Force. Their “oversight” includes the 1,900 tons of debris in low Earth orbit (as of 2002) and about 1,500 objects. In the LEO space the number of targets remains pretty constant+s = all of the newly launched satellites; -s = the number of objects for which their orbits deteriorate. At HEO air drag is less significant, orbital decay takes longer. Slight atmospheric drag, lunar perturbations, Earth’s gravity perturbations, solar wind and solar radiation pressure can gradually bring debris down to lower altitudes (where it decays), but at very high altitudes this may take millennia.

space traffic control

Beyond tracking these orbits, the USAF has had to reposition satellites to avoid wreckage, such as the debris field created in 2007 by a Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon. Another control function is required to deal with working and dead satellites orbiting Earth. With more commercial spacecraft being added to space, this workload will likely be increased over the long term. “If you look at layers of orbit, in some of these orbits we will see a 100- to 1,000-percent increase in the number of objects” in space, Loverro said. “That
is a space traffic management problem.”

Although most debris burns up in the atmosphere, larger objects can reach the ground intact. According to NASA, an average of one cataloged piece of debris has fallen back to Earth each day for the past 50 years. Despite their size, there has been no significant property damage from the debris.

space traffic control

Loverro adds, “If we think that this is going to be a problem, we need a regulatory structure to do this. I think the first entree into that is allowing FAA into the space traffic monitoring game, which will eventually, I think, lead to a space traffic management.”

Rep. James Bridenstine (R-OK) Chair of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has introduced a comprehensive bill that would set a 2020 deadline to determine what government organization should be responsible for space traffic management.

space traffic control

The Deputy Assistant Secretary said that he was “agnostic” as to which federal organization should be given the task, but he wants the US to be first in Space Traffic Control because he fears what another country might do if it.

Here are some thoughts on the candidates for such a Space Traffic Control and the appropriate sponsor for such global orbital jurisdiction.

First and foremost, the FAA’s experience and knowledge from controlling its national airspace system is almost totally irrelevant to this space challenge. The physics of space flight and the science of aircraft operations are different; plus satellites fly in circles while planes’ primary flight direction is straight lines.

Second, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation was established “to ensure protection of the public, property, and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States during commercial launch or reentry activities, and to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation.” It is a small team, early in its history and its approved launches rank third in the world.

space traffic control

Third, adding to the FAA’s jurisdiction may appear to be merely an extension, but really be a major expansion. With the existing, burgeoning and uber demanding responsibilities for NextGen, SMS, UAS and commercial space, the burden of handling space may tax its already challenged executive resources.

Fourth and probably most importantly, it would be presumptuous of the US Government to claim authority over space. Other nations would ignore such attempts and there would be chaos under multiple assertions of space control.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency, was created by a multi-lateral agreement, the Chicago Convention of 1944. The preamble to that document, establishing that global body for setting aviation standards, is instructive:

“WHEREAS the future development of international civil aviation can greatly help to create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples of the world, yet its abuse can become a threat to the general security; and

WHEREAS it is desirable to avoid friction and to promote that co-operation between nations and peoples upon which the peace of the world depends;

THEREFORE, the undersigned governments having agreed on certain principles and arrangements in order that international civil aviation may be developed in a safe and orderly manner and that international air transport services may be established on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically;

Have accordingly concluded this Convention to that end.”

In order to create order in space, the authority to regulate its safe and efficient use will have to come from the mutual assent of all nations. Based on the past precedent, an International Civil Space Organization might be an answer. To do otherwise would be presumptuous and imprudent.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Loverro should be complimented for his raising of the urgent need for some Space Control. Rep. Bridenstine, his Senate counterpart, NASA Administrator Bolden, FAA Administrator Huerta, DoT Secretary Foxx, DoD Carter, Secretary of State Kerry and private industry executives should heed the warning and start the process to create an ICSO, as the right global authority to bring the same level of safety and security to the LEO and HEO as the international community has established in the airspace.


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