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$1 Trillion Economy Relies on a Sustainable Space Regime

Establishing a comprehensive international space traffic regime is critical to unlocking the value of the future space economy, agreed a panel of regulatory experts at the SATELLITE 2018 Conference & Exhibition. Morgan Stanley analysts recently estimated that the space industry, worth about $350 billion today, will grow to more $1 trillion by 2040. Speakers pointed to this potential as evidence of the importance of long-term space sustainability.

According to Jennifer Warren, vice president of technology policy and regulation for Lockheed Martin, any regime must be holistic, encompassing protocols for physical assets, spectrum and interference. “Space sustainability is … a number of different dimensions. All of that goes toward creating an investment environment we hope will be hospitable for not only the existing space-faring nations, but future commercial activities in more nations,” she said.

Although the stock prices of traditional Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) operators have wavered in recent years, private capital continues to flood the NewSpace pocket of the market. Reaping the full value of these investments will require a safe and stable space environment — meaning any new activities will need to be transparent and closely monitored. The bureaucracy involved in obtaining the correct licenses and following proper regulatory protocols might sometimes be a headache, but ultimately it is for the benefit of everyone, the panelists agreed.

The space community retains a certain “institutional schizophrenia,” said Kenneth Hodgkins, director of space and advanced technology for the U.S. State Department. On one hand, companies sometimes push back against regulations; but on the other hand, no one is comfortable with the risk that comes along with an unsupervised space environment.

This concern only becomes more magnified as new space actors emerge onto the scene. “There are nanosatellites being launched — by India, by France — that we’re not entirely clear have been properly authorized and supervised under the Outer Space Treaty,” Hodgkins said. Thus, international cooperation will be key to establishing a “level playing field” for all those who wish to benefit from space. Hodgkins said he doesn’t want a situation where operators in the U.S. are held to different regulatory standards than their international peers. “It’s not fair and it’s not sustainable,” he said.

An effective regime will also have to be flexible and responsive to change, said Jennifer Manner, Echostar’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs. “We can’t sit here today and foresee every use case and application. We need to think about things that are unpredictable,” she said. “The real goal we have here is long-term safety of authorized space operations. But we must also prepare for things that are not authorized.”

Indeed, there is always the risk someone will not follow the rules of the road. Just last week, news broke that that Swarm Technologies launched a set of nanosatellites on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) without approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). During another panel at the conference, Space World Foundation’s Victoria Samson said the unauthorized launch proves self-regulation doesn’t work. “You need to nationalize your domestic legislation,” she said.

The panelists agreed that the U.S. in particular needs a lead agency with the overall responsibility of guaranteeing space sustainability. Such an agency would have to ensure full participation from all space actors, and could possibly establish some incentives to do so, Hodgkins said. It would also “create communities of interest among different companies, supply chains and [academics] so there’s a broader understanding” of the regulations involved.

Manner highlighted three elements of what a successful national and international space traffic regime would look like. First, it would have to address all objects — whether a SpaceX Low Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband satellite or a high school’s scientific project — regardless of their distance from the Earth. Second, the framework would have to be dynamic and upgradable to accommodate new technologies and capabilities as they emerge over time. And it must also include debris mitigation regulations, data sharing requirements and organizational oversight.

From an international perspective, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has put out the first set of guidelines for sustainable space use. According to U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) Director Simonetta di Pippo, the international community will gather in Vienna, Austria, this summer to discuss the future of global space cooperation. Currently, COPUOS has 87 member states, and that number will continue to expand as growing countries become space powers.

The event, called Unispace+50, “will be a turning point in terms of being more supportive of the interests of all member states, in particular developing countries,” di Pippo said. VS