The satellite industry must figure out how multiple stakeholders can work together to manage space and mitigate debris while addressing concerns such as lack of trust or the presence of bad actors, and the need for open, interoperable technology, experts said in a space domain awareness panel during SATELLITE 2023.
Experts said that positive economic forecasts for the industry could be tempered by the risk of space debris.
“We’ve got an excess of 130 million fragments less than a centimeter in size zooming around out in space, 1 million fragments up to about 4 inches or 10 centimeters,” said moderator Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president for Government Strategy and Policy with Inmarsat Government, setting the scene of the issue. “[U.S. Army] General Dickinson just noted that there are 7,400 flying satellites, a 22 percent increase over five years, and 41,000 pieces of debris that are being tracked.” These include rocket bodies, defunct satellites, or unidentified objects, she added.
Noting the unprecedented growth in assets in space over the last decade, Dr. Luisa Buinhas, co-founder of Vyoma, suggested it’s time for the space industry and governments to reassess and prioritize protecting space assets.
“We have become all too dependent on these space-based services whether we are consciously aware of it,” she said. “Our ability to understand what’s happening hasn’t kept up. We can still only track 3 percent of objects that are larger than a paperclip.”
And even that 3 percent of trackable objects are difficult to track with currently available technology, she added.
“For instance, a ground-based sensor needs to wait for an object to fly overhead in order to take a measurement and it frequently happens that the same object goes hours or days until the second measurement,” Buinhas continued. “For us to be able to protect space assets, we need to know where these assets are. Knowledge and data are the most powerful instruments that we have for ensuring the safety of our orbits.”
Speakers pointed to the lack of space traffic control or a legal international framework to manage space traffic.
“Just because it is crowded and congested, it doesn’t have to be dangerous,” said Joe Chan, chairman of Space Data Association and director of flight dynamics at Intelsat. “You’re driving on the road, which may be busy but if everyone follows the rules, we will be OK. For example, if you don’t abandon your car on the road, and you try to maintain where you are going.”
Eric Ingram, co-founder and CEO of SCOUT Space called for three things to solve these challenges: creativity, collaboration, and proactivity.
“We need more and diverse data sets in order to understand everything that’s going on in orbit,” said Ingram. “And if we don’t act together as an industry [and] work on coordinating ourselves and figure out how to intermingle on all the things we’re working on, government will do that for us. … The first big collision in orbit that happens once it’s denser traffic up there … if we don’t have stuff in place prepared to prevent that, or options ready to go to recover from that, entities will step in and force it to make it happen.”
Ingram believes the industry will see more collaboration in the commercial, or NGO, area.
“Before we can get a full regulatory ecosystem established, I think we will all see norms hopefully established that can inform the regulatory development process of what ends up being space traffic management,” he said.
The extent to which we can improve collaboration, said Buinhas, hinges on stakeholders’ ability to come to an understanding of what kinds of data are acceptable to share.
“I believe that rather than going for the idealistic approach of trying to get 75 spacefaring nations to agree to the rules of the road, we could be a bit more pragmatic… and bring together agencies that share our vision before moving on to them across regional players.”
Andrea Cardellicchio, head of SSO Commercial Development for Telespazio, said regulatory activities in the U.S. are similar to what’s going on in Europe, in the quest to define the rules of space traffic management.
“There is one deep, underlying question that is being asked in the commercial community in both in the U.S. and in Europe,” he said. “It’s how much of those services have to be freely available to users. For people that are making money in this industry, it’s very important to us what is the right way because we are either creating or destroying the market.” VS