Imagine a world where wealthy and emerging nations alike have the means and opportunity to launch thousands of small satellites into space, each lacking navigation and control systems – and think about the havoc that could ensue. In the already-cluttered Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) environment, adding thousands more small satellites with no ability to maneuver through this crowded space will clutter, confuse, and complicate commercial and government operations around the globe.
Vital communications links would be severed. There would be costly and life-threatening delays in early warnings of natural disasters. GPS systems would be taken offline.
Growth in LEO access and utilization is exponentially increasing the probability of conjunctions and potentially triggering a chain reaction of collisions in LEO. At a minimum, this scenario would increase the already dangerous amount of space debris in this environment. Simply put, if this were to happen, the International Space Station, military, and commercial missions would be put at risk, and resulting collateral damage and fallout could threaten the safety, health, and welfare, not just of the citizens of the United States, but of the world.
We don’t need to imagine this scenario because we’re already facing this challenge. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can continue to expand capabilities in space and protect existing and new space assets. Smart system design, low cost propulsion, and smart regulatory frameworks can solve this challenge today.
In the last two years, the Federal Communications Commission has received applications to launch over 20,000 satellites, many of them uncontrolled, and the numbers are growing. Potentially hostile nations also have the ability to launch these small satellites without attribution and still be in line with international norms. As we cannot control the actions of others, the action falls to responsible parties such as the United States to embrace the mandate to maneuver. Essentially, the U.S. needs to adopt defensive driving practices for the use of space as current policies are insufficient to effectively regulate LEO.
The United States is still the leader in space technology, development, annual launches, and satellites on orbit. We continue to out-innovate, out-produce, and out-work the global competition. However, we have failed to fully embrace our role as the global leader and influencer with the power and responsibility to set the international norms, to create a U.S. code of conduct for responsible use of space. We have not set the standard or the enforcement mechanisms to protect this vital arena. Policy is slow, difficult and often under-appreciated work, but it is critical to safe and secure space operations in LEO. We must recognize that the next space age is upon us and the time for action is now.
As we in the space community know all too well, in 2009 two defunct satellites collided in LEO and created roughly 1,800 new pieces of debris from only two objects. This happened because there was no mandatory policy in place to require their safe disposal. Two other objects nearly collided this past October, narrowly averting another huge influx of space debris – and our space in LEO continues to become more cluttered every month. Without regulatory protections to prevent such collisions, these events will become more and more frequent, and potentially more disastrous. Even with these high stakes, Space Policy Directive-3 is still stuck in debate between the Department of Commerce and the Federal Aviation Administration, the Pentagon continues to track space objects and space debris, and others argue on rules and regulations.
The space community has focused more on developing and maturing technologies that improve communications and surveillance than on technologies and policies that could regulate, mitigate, and prevent both accidental and intentional threats to critical and legitimate space missions. Commercial enterprises and federal government stakeholders must work in concert to establish policies, regulations, and technologies that ensure safe space operations.
While regulation is key to responsible space mission execution (e.g., requirements that satellites have the capability to maneuver while in orbit to prevent collisions), it is imperative to demand technologies that can make those maneuvers possible on all satellites without impeding existing capabilities. We need to consider factors such as weight, size, and power, and we also need to work toward more green technologies that are low-cost and environmentally friendly.
At Accion Systems, we are doing just that with our small, safe and low-cost propulsion systems, but one company is not enough. The surge of interest in New Space should also encourage investment in additional small nimble companies developing viable solutions to these complex challenges.
As the industry, we must break the logjam. Industry must push our regulators to action as continued debate and inaction will damage our companies and our economy when space access is limited by debris or policy makers react too quickly to a catastrophic event and over-regulate a solution. Furthermore, it is in our national interest to set a U.S. example for the world to follow, thereby fully enabling the new space economy that is about to emerge. A fair code of conduct, rules of the road, and a mandate to maneuver allows commercial norms and sets the baseline of minimum viable capabilities for identification and control. A fair code of conduct underpins our collective responsible use of space and allows growth, trade, commerce, and prosperity on an even playing field without adding to the already hostile environment that is space. Our time to act is now. VS
Natalya Bailey is the CTO and founder of Accion Systems Inc.