Credit: SpaceNews graphic

WASHINGTON — A report prepared for Congress recommends giving a civil agency responsibility for space traffic management work, but stops short of recommending which agency should take on the job.

The “Orbital Traffic Management Study” was prepared by SAIC for NASA under a provision of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 to examine models for improved space traffic management. The final report, dated Nov. 21, was recently delivered to Congress as required by the law.

The report noted that collisions between objects in Earth orbit remain relatively rare, but that such collisions can have major consequences. “Therefore, it is in the U.S. national strategic and economic interests to have an improved domestic space traffic safety governance framework… that specifically aims to mitigate and reduce the risk of possible space traffic safety incidents, while at the same protect the economic vitality of the space industry,” states the report, a copy of which was obtained by SpaceNews.

The report examined five such frameworks for space traffic management of non-military spacecraft, including the current one where the U.S. Air Force provides satellite operators with warnings of potential collisions as well as four alternatives with varying degrees of government involvement. For each framework, the report examined the policy, technical and operational issues involved with that approach to space traffic management.

The two frameworks evaluated to be the best involved transferring space traffic management responsibilities from the Defense Department to a civilian agency. “A Framework that best balances the needs for safety, national security, and economic interest is a framework led by a civil agency,” the report concluded.

One of those frameworks, known as “Civil-Based Space Traffic Safety Monitoring and Facilitation” or “Option 3” in the report, would give responsibility to a civilian agency “using a modest, bottom-up approach with the primary purpose of facilitating voluntary information sharing among owner-operators,” according to the report. That framework could use the Defense Department’s existing assets and/or commercial systems to track objects, with the agency then providing warnings to potential collisions to satellite operators.

A second framework, called “Civil-Based Space Traffic Safety Monitoring and Coordination” or “Option 4,” is similar, but would give the agency the authority to “mandate some level of communication and coordination among private owner-operators” of satellites in the event of a potential collision. Satellite operators would also be required, instead of strongly encouraged, to subscribe to space situational awareness products and services provided by the agency.

The report leaned towards Option 3, concerned that the industry may perceive Option 4 as too strict. “The most significant difference presented by this Framework option, as compared to Option 3,” it said about Option 4, “is that the regulatory mandates of the approach could inhibit new startups and potentially begin to drive companies offshore due to actual or perceived compliance burdens.”

The recommended framework, the report noted, is “the quickest and most affordable way” to give a civilian agency responsibility for space traffic management, but added it could evolve over time to take on a stronger regulatory role. “It also offers the most flexibility by providing options to increase the role of the civil organization over time (and possibly transition to the more prescriptive Framework options) as is deemed appropriate.”

The report did not make any recommendations about which civil agency should take on space traffic management work, an assessment not required by the language in the law mandating the study. The report did note that the agency assigned this role would need to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who all currently review orbital debris mitigation practices as part of the licensing process for launches, satellite communications and commercial remote sensing spacecraft, respectively.

Of those agencies, the FAA has been most closely associated with taking on space traffic management responsibilities. FAA officials have talked for months about their interest in gradually taking on work currently handled by the Defense Department. The FAA also held an industry day in October to discuss its interest taking on the work, an event where Defense Department officials supported such a transfer.

The idea of handing over space traffic management responsibilities for non-military satellites to a civilian agency in general, and the FAA in particular, also has support in Congress. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who serves on the House Armed Services and Science Committees, has endorsed such a shift in a number of public addresses. It’s uncertain, though, what priority any effort to give the FAA space traffic management responsibilities will have in the next Congress or in the incoming Trump administration.

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...