Industry looks to decentralized approaches to space sustainability

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — As governments make slow progress on space traffic management systems, companies may be able work together more quickly to develop processes to support space sustainability.

In a panel at Space Tech Expo here May 24, industry officials said it is in the best interest of companies to collaborate on space traffic issues independent of efforts at national and international levels to develop space traffic coordination systems or rules of the road for space activities.

“If one person has a problem, it will affect everybody,” said David Barnhart, chief executive and co-founder of Ariksys, a company developing space servicing systems. “There has to be some realization that there is a co-alignment of incentives and desires, even by commercial companies that want to compete with each other.”

That cooperation is already in place among some satellite operators through the Space Data Association (SDA), where members exchange data on their spacecraft to coordinate safe space operations. “Collaboration amongst competitors is really key to sharing sustainable space,” said Tobias Nassif, director of the SDA.

“All of the founders of the SDA are fierce competitors in the marketplace,” he said, primarily in communications. “We came together because we knew we had a common problem that, if we were to have a collision, have a problem in space, it not only affects one but it affects all.”

The SDA is a “perfect example” of how such company-to-company coordination can work, said Josef Koller, co-founder of the Space Safety Institute at The Aerospace Corporation. “More and more companies and nations are starting to realize the importance of spaceflight safety, that it’s in the interest of all of us and we ought to get together and have that discussion and information exchange.”

That approach, he said, does not require some kind of central authority. “We need to rethink this notion of the need for a centralized body of space traffic management,” he said, instead calling for a “peer-to-peer” decentralized approach. “Modern technology has given us a lot of ways and means to think about different approaches to managing all the different participants.”

Those views come as industry complains about the slow pace of government efforts, such as developing space traffic coordination systems and regulations. “One of the biggest disrupters is the lack of action on the part of government,” said Laura Cummings, regulatory affairs counsel at Astroscale U.S., which is developing satellite servicing and debris removal technologies. Governments talk about space sustainability, “but at the end of the day we still mostly just see talk.”

Part of that, she said, is a lack of resources for organizations like the Office of Space Commerce, which is charged with implementing a civil space traffic management system in the United States under Space Policy Directive 3 in 2018. “Give people money to do things they were directed to do.”

“That’s where we really need to rely on industry and companies to really set the tone, set the rules for being sustainable. You can’t wait for governments to react,” Nassif said. “If we pollute it and make it inoperable, we’re out of business, so it’s in the best interests of companies, of industry, to keep space sustainable so we have a place to do business.”