Op-ed | Conjunction risk drives need for information sharing

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The recent announcement that NASA has entered into discussions with China’s space agency over the sharing of ephemeris data for Mars orbital conjunction analysis is certainly positive and necessary. However, what is good for Mars is even better — and more urgent — closer to home in low-Earth orbit. 

At present about 3,400 satellites orbit Earth. However, in 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under its statutory licensing authority, approved over 13,000 additional satellites which are underway in deployment today. Other countries are also planning to fly more satellites. Although the FCC requires U.S. applicants to submit comprehensive orbital debris mitigation plans as a requirement of their license authorizations, this is not the case with most foreign administrations, and foreign-licensed satellite systems do not have to follow U.S. space safety regulations. 

Space is busy and getting busier. Given the anticipated increased utilization of space largely in low Earth orbit, robust data dissemination of active satellite operations as well as orbital debris mitigation plans must be a part of international norms of space market access. New international agreements such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, “Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space,” have been created to encourage greater information sharing to maintain and improve space safety. This is good news we can all embrace. But, digging deeper, the space community faces an urgent problem that lays bare the shortcomings of the current state of space information sharing.  

Rather than a single uniform information sharing agreement used by everyone, a large set of unique bilateral information-sharing agreements have been formed. The Université Laval in Quebec, Canada, has launched a project to track institutional arrangements between space actors and has identified more than 900 bilateral arrangements. Why is this a problem? First, it is unrealistic and inefficient to expect each space actor to reach an agreement with every other space actor that may operate in or through a shared orbit. More importantly, it makes the space domain even less transparent. For example, NASA has created a bilateral agreement in which, in the event of a forecasted conjunction, the ISS will maintain its planned trajectory and the satellite that threatens it will maneuver. This makes some sense given the size and importance of the ISS, but how will other affected space actors maintain awareness of the maneuver in order to preserve their operational safety?

Instead of hundreds of individual agreements between space actors, a robust and decentralized information sharing framework is needed to create a common picture of the orbital domain for the entire space community. Space stakeholders should uniformly adopt the practice of sharing a wide variety of situational information for their systems, such as ephemeris, covariance data, planned maneuvers, system health, autonomous navigation algorithms and data needed for accurate, real-time tracking and conjunction management. Information sharing must balance between the protection of information to support the parochial issues of a single operator, such as protection of proprietary or system vulnerability information, versus sharing for the common preservation of the space domain.

Information sharing for space operations is not limited to space traffic management (STM) alone; it also pertains to another form of collision, namely spectral collisions involving radio frequency interference. Moreover, beyond the need to prevent cyberattacks in orbit, the physical transit of objects during ascent and reentry, from surface-to-space (S2S), also must be ensured. 

While we certainly acknowledge that information is effectively being exchanged through multiple bilateral agreements, we believe that the space community worldwide must do more. Standardized information sharing applied to STM, spectrum, cyber and S2S should be the goal. Such frameworks and behaviors have been developed in the maritime and aviation domains, and it is now time to do the same in space. 

Ruth Stilwell is a senior nonresident scholar at The George Washington University, and Christian Zur is the executive director of the Procurement and Space Industry Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.