Congress considering space traffic management legislation

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WASHINGTON — As the White House puts the finishing touches on a new space policy dealing with space traffic management issues, the House is considering legislation of its own on the topic.

During an appearance at a Secure World Foundation panel discussion on the subject June 11, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, said legislation was in development to address the issue of monitoring objects in orbit and providing warnings to satellite operators of potential collisions.

“We also have another bill coming up on some of the same subjects that you are going to be discussing here,” he said after mentioning the passage in April of another commercial space bill, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act.

Smith didn’t go into details about the bill, but Mike Mineiro, staff director of the space subcommittee, said later during the panel discussion that he is currently talking with various stakeholders about issues regarding space traffic management they would like to see in the bill.

“We’re here to listen and learn, and ultimately to provide the chairman and the members the best recommendations and advice for their consideration on how legislation should be crafted to address this policy area,” he said.

He added he didn’t know the timeline for developing the bill but said the committee would attempt to pass something this year. Smith is retiring from Congress at the end of the year.

The House’s plans for space traffic management legislation comes as the administration is expected to soon release a final version of a new space traffic management policy that Vice President Mike Pence announced April 16 at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. That policy could be announced at the next meeting of the National Space Council, scheduled for June 18 at the White House.

U.S. Air Force Col. John Giles, a senior policy advisor on the National Space Council, said at the panel discussion that he could not talk about the details of the policy at this stage of its development. “The policy itself has been presented but has not been signed by the president,” he said. “We look forward to that policy being approved. We look forward to implementing that policy.”

Pence, in his April speech, said that the policy would transfer responsibility for providing “a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use” from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department. The Defense Department would retain the tracking resources currently used to compile the catalog of space objects, but the Commerce Department could augment that information with data from private organizations.

In an April 17 speech at the Space Symposium, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said his office was looking forward to taking on space traffic management (STM) responsibilities. “The department stands ready to work with other executive branch agencies, and the private sector, to develop an STM strategy that creates benchmark standards for the entire world,” he said.

Panelists at the June 11 event, asked to identify what they would like to see in any STM legislation, discussed the importance of sharing space situational awareness data from different sources.

Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin used a web-based tool to illustrate how different data sources can provide varying positions of the same object, like a cubesat. “The inconsistency says we have work to do,” he said. “We need to bring all of these sources of information together, try to quantify what these inconsistencies are, and I think that’s how we start getting to some international collaboration and understanding of what’s going on in space.”

Legislation could also give the Commerce Department, or another agency, more authority to take actions to prevent collisions or other unsafe activities. “The whole game for space traffic management is somebody in charge of assigning and deconflicting orbits, and what authorities do they need to effectively do that,” said Brandt Pasco, an attorney and fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Only Congress can really establish the authorities and who should be in the lead.”

Whatever the White House and Congress do on space traffic management will need to be aligned with activities at the international level, including space sustainability guidelines developed by the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, other panelists advised.

“People don’t like to feel like the United States is coming in and waving the big stick and telling them what to do,” said Theresa Hitchens of the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies. Even though the U.S. is a leader in the field, she said, it must work with other countries to avoid the appearance of imposing standards and requirements on them.

“I would encourage all of the people that are involved in the drafting of legislation to become intimately familiar with those guidelines are that have been agreed to, so those particular ideas can be captured in our legislation,” said Diane Howard of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “That’s a very good way that we can lead by example.”