Space debris (ESA photo)

WASHINGTON — President Trump will sign a new space policy directive June 18 addressing space traffic management issues, closely following the proposed policy that Vice President Pence announced in April.

The president is expected to sign Space Policy Directive 3 during a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House. The policy addresses several issues regarding the monitoring of objects in orbit, providing that information to spacecraft operators to avoid collisions, and other measures to limit the growth of orbital debris.

The policy hews very closely to what Pence announced in an April 16 speech at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Pence described that draft policy as the “the first comprehensive space traffic management policy” developed by the federal government.

“There are no major changes from where the vice president was at back in April,” Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a call with reporters June 18 ahead of the signing. “What we’re doing is a further elaboration and more authoritative discussion of the foundational principles” as well as development of implementation plans.

One of the most significant parts of that policy is transferring responsibility for providing “space safety data and services,” including warnings of potential collisions, from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department. The Defense Department will retain the role of maintaining the “authoritative catalog” of space objects, offering the “releasable” part of it to Commerce to provide those services.

“What we hope to do is have a more user-friendly approach at the Commerce Department,” Pace said, relieving the Defense Department of the burden of providing those warnings to civilian and commercial satellite operators. “What we hope to see is that people will get more rapid and more accurate information.”

That shift, though, will take time, with Pace estimating it would take a “few years” to set up that transfer of responsibility from Defense to Commerce. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re basically getting everybody in their lanes and people pulling in the same direction,” he said.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, appearing at the Space Symposium after Pence’s speech, said he anticipated a gradual transition. “What we worked out in concept is a transitional period,” he said then of his discussions with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. “This is not going to be an abrupt switch-throwing, where one day it’s DoD and the next day it’s Commerce.”

The policy includes several other measures beyond the transfer of space traffic management work to the Commerce Department. NASA, Pace said, will lead efforts to update orbital debris mitigation guidelines. Commerce will also work on plans for an “open data repository” for space situational awareness data from commercial and international sources to augment the information from the Defense Department’s catalog. The Commerce Department, along with Defense and Transportation, will develop standards and best practices for pre-launch risk assessments and on-orbit collision assessments.

The State Department will lead work on “international transparency” in space traffic management, including development of non-binding guidelines. However, Pace said he didn’t expect that work to lead to a treaty-level agreement on space traffic management for the foreseeable future. “We want to explicitly avoid trying to create, or waiting to create, an international treaty which would take quite some time and be probably quite complex to do,” he said. “Instead, we want to move a bit faster.”

The issue of space traffic management is not a new one, but Pace said during the call that several factors, from the proposed deployment of “megaconstellations” of thousands of satellites to greater awareness of the problems of orbital debris, helped make this policy possible. “We thought a lot of those things came together at the right time,” he said. “And with the space council being the focal point across all the agencies, we were very happy to be successful in pushing this across the line in a way that previous administrations weren’t able to do.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...