More than 1,500. That’s the additional pieces of debris now floating around in low Earth orbit because of the reckless and irreversible Russian anti-satellite test last November.
Another 13,000 small satellites will be added by the Chinese when they deploy a large constellation to provide internet services.
Then consider the U.S.-licensed companies that have already launched more than 2,000 satellites of a planned tens of thousands of satellites over the next decade.
All of this must be added to the approximately 40,000 objects currently being tracked by U.S. Space Command. As an engineer, I can do math all day. I enjoy it. What’s not so fun is facing the urgent problem that tens of thousands of objects traveling at roughly 17,500 mph in low Earth orbit threaten launch vehicles, space assets, and human lives.
It was just over a decade ago when the Iridium 33 and the derelict Russian military Kosmos 2251 communications satellites collided, creating thousands of new pieces of debris and an ongoing headache for the crews onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, astronauts aboard the ISS have witnessed a significant number of near misses. It’s only a matter of time before the next catastrophic event takes place – one in which lives, or key national security and commercial assets, are lost. How many more misses will it take before Congress acts? Do we have to wait for that catastrophe? For all our sake, I sure hope not.
It is not melodramatic to state that this is a four-alarm fire. We in the space sector smell the smoke and see the flames. The executive branch recognizes the emergency as well. Two successive U.S. presidential administrations have affirmed the need for the United States to develop a national space traffic management (STM) function. Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD3) charged the Department of Commerce (DOC) with making space safety data and services available to the public, while the Department of Defense maintains the authoritative catalog of space objects. The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) would be the civil agency to perform the STM tasks outlined in SPD-3, and this position was reaffirmed by a congressionally directed National Academy of Public Administration study. While the DOC has taken a few initial steps, including establishing an open architecture data repository, critical elements remain unresolved, which hinder U.S. industry’s ability to anticipate what will be required for the responsible use of space. This is an unacceptable situation only Congress can solve.
That is why the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is leading an effort to advance the STM issue. We have assembled major stakeholders from the space industry, as well as the insurance, finance, international, legal, and technical sectors, all of whom have emphasized the urgency of this issue with key congressional staff.
Our positions and recommendations are straightforward:
• We strongly back full implementation of SPD-3.
• We call for Congress to authorize OSC as the government office responsible for civilian STM responsibilities.
• In addition, OSC should be elevated to be a direct report to the Deputy Secretary of Commerce.
• OSC should be appropriated adequate funding to hire the necessary staff resources and to establish the required data systems.
• OSC should also eventually become a small bureau within the department and be led by an assistant secretary.
Such actions will give OSC the gravitas and agility to work at the highest levels of the department and across government agencies to coordinate and establish a domestic civil STM function, as well as authoritatively engage in multilateral discussions abroad.
I should acknowledge that the U.S. Senate has passed the SPACE Act, which codifies elements of SPD-3 by formally assigning civil space situational awareness responsibilities to the DOC. This is encouraging; however, more must be done. Time is running short. We can’t afford to wait for a catastrophic event before proper steps are taken to address this matter.
The space community is unanimous: Congress needs to act now on space traffic management to provide stability and certainty, so the commercial sector can continue to innovate and invest in new ventures that continue building a robust space economy.
Dan Dumbacher is the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.