TAMPA, Fla. — Governments should consider requiring satellites over a certain altitude to be maneuverable to improve space sustainability, according to an executive for Amazon’s proposed Project Kuiper constellation.
Kalpak Gude, Project Kuiper’s head of domestic regulatory affairs, urged governments June 14 to encourage more satellites to have “maneuverability-with-an-outcome capability” — either through regulations or best practice guidelines — as orbits become more congested.
“I think looking at that and [determining] what altitude is that required, based on a lot of different factors out there, to ensure long-term sustainability … is an area that government should look at,” Gude said during the 5th Summit for Space Sustainability in New York.
Project Kuiper is equipping the 3,200 broadband satellites it plans to start deploying by the end of this year to low Earth orbit (LEO) — at an altitude of around 600 kilometers — with active propulsion systems.
The venture says hall-effect thrusters and a propulsion tank on each satellite would enable it to actively maintain a safe distance from other spacecraft in LEO and avoid debris, rather than rely on gravitational forces.
Two prototypes slated to fly in the coming months on the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket are designed in part to test the reliability of Project Kuiper’s propulsion system.
A recommendation for satellites to be maneuverable when operating above 375 kilometers was part of sustainability guidelines the World Economic Forum (WEF) released June 13.
The recommendations also covered orbital data sharing, financial incentives for sustainable missions, and a target to remove a satellite from LEO no more than five years after reaching the end of its operational life.
Satellite operators Avanti Communications, EchoStar, GHGSat, OneWeb, Planet, and SES were among 27 companies that endorsed the guidelines on their release.
Amazon and SpaceX, each developing constellations far exceeding all these companies by number of satellites, were not among the signatories.
Amazon told SpaceNews it had helped develop WEF’s debris mitigation recommendations but is not yet ready to endorse them as it continues to assess these and other best practice guidelines.
“We are still really in the early phases of learning about operations in LEO that maximize and really value safety,” Gude said during the sustainability summit.
However, he said if governments adopt rules that leverage increasing academic and industry research, operators will be more than willing to come on board.
Space companies are spending billions of dollars to deploy satellites, he said, and so “we are incredibly incentivized to control our own behavior and ensure safety” across spacecraft design, launch, operations, and ultimate de-orbit.
“When you invest over $10 billion to build an infrastructure in space, you are not creating it in an environment where you think you are at risk because of bad behavior by yourself or others,” he told the conference.
Representatives of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the U.K.’s space agency were also on the panel and were keen to stress the growing importance of sustainability in their domestic space regulations.
Both countries are modernizing satellite regulations to keep up with the industry’s rapid evolution, including rules around emerging applications such as in-orbit servicing, with implications for businesses outside their borders.
Ray Fielding, head of sustainability at the UK Space Agency, said satellite operators licensed in countries with less stringent sustainability requirements could find themselves restricted from providing services in the United Kingdom.
Merissa Velez, chief of the FCC Space Bureau’s satellite programs and policy division, said it also looks at “the same information for applicants for U.S. market access as we do for those companies seeking to have a U.S. license.”