New coalition seeks to improve space safety

by

WAILEA, Hawaii — A group of satellite operators and other organizations have banded together to endorse a set of best practices intended to improve space safety, including measures to minimize the risk of collisions in orbit.

The Space Safety Coalition, which has more than 20 member organizations who combined operate about a quarter of all active satellites, released its list of best practices Sept. 18 to coincide with the start of the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies, or AMOS, conference here, a meeting on space situational awareness and space traffic management.

The best practices, outlined in a 17-page document, build upon existing guidelines and standards for mitigating orbital debris, identifying measures that satellite operators can take to further minimize the creation of orbital debris and the risks of collisions with other objects.

“Operators can do things above and beyond what a consensus national-level can get to,” said Dan Oltrogge of the Center for Space Standards and Innovation, who serves as the administrator of the coalition, in an interview. “Many of the operators really want to do better.”

The best practices include more than 40 measures intended to improve space safety, from steps to exchange information on satellite operations, proper disposal of launch vehicle upper stages, a “safety-by-design” approach for individual satellites and constellations of satellites, and other practices for the design and operation of satellites intended to minimize the risk of collisions.

For example, one provision calls on satellite operators to complete the deorbiting of their satellites at the end of their lives within five years, a fraction of the 25-year guideline currently widely adopted. “There’s a general feeling that 25 years was done in another era and things have moved along,” Oltrogge said. “I was surprised and pleased that operators were willing to step up.”

The best practices outlined in the document are non-binding. Instead, the document states that operators will “promote and strive to implement” those plans.

Those operators who have signed onto the document include several major operators of geostationary orbit satellites, such as Inmarsat, Intelsat and SES, as well as low Earth orbit operators Iridium, OneWeb and Planet. One launch company, Virgin Orbit, has also endorsed the document.

A number of other companies are not included, including companies like SpaceX and Amazon that have plans for megaconstellations of satellites in LEO. Oltrogge said that the exclusion of those companies doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t agree with the plans, but instead in many cases simply didn’t have time to review and sign onto the document in time for the announcement.

“Don’t assume that, because they’re not there, they’re not interested,” he said. “There are others we have not reached out to yet, but will very shortly.”

The announcement of the Space Safety Coalition coincided with another reminder of the risks satellite operators face. Bigelow Aerospace announced Sept. 17 that it had been informed by the U.S. Air Force that its Genesis 2 spacecraft would pass close to the defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 1300 early Sept. 18. The company said there was a 5.6% chance of a collision.

Genesis 2, launched in 2007 as a demonstration of its expandable habitation module technologies, doesn’t have a means to maneuver to reduce the risk of a collision. “Anything we launch from here on out will have [propulsion] capability,” the company said, noting its B330 module under development will have two separate propulsion systems for maneuvers and end-of-life disposal.