Orbital debris illustration. Credit: ESA

WASHINGTON — Commercial and government activities in outer space are increasingly endangered by rapidly growing congestion in the space environment. And it’s unclear how much longer industries and governments can continue to operate safely in space without globally coordinated space traffic management, says a new report from the Atlantic Council.

The report by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security urges the U.S. government and allies to push for an international framework for space traffic management. Maxar Technologies provided funding for the report. 

There is an urgent need for an “international coordinating authority to lead on space traffic management,” argue the authors, Mir Sadat and Julia Siegel. This could be done through an existing organization, such as the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, or the creation of a new organization with proper authorities.

A central message in the report is that it is no longer sufficient to know the location of spacecraft and space debris. As space becomes more crowded, “it is imperative to have a common understanding of and management over maneuver in a congested environment.”

U.S. Space Command currently is tracking 35,000 space objects. This is just a small fraction of objects orbiting Earth and only a subset of the debris that can harm spacecraft, the report says.

Many governments, corporations and international organizations track space objects and notify satellite operators when the probability of collision is notable. But it is ultimately up to the operators to determine whether and when they will move their spacecraft.

This decentralized system has worked so far but may not be adequate to prevent collisions in the future, Mir and Siegel write. “The United States should urgently lead on a globally coordinated policy framework for space traffic management, else the space domain will remain on an unsustainable path endangering national imperatives.”

The report calls on the U.S. Congress to examine the capabilities of the Office of Space Commerce – the Department of Commerce organization assigned to take over space traffic management duties. Lawmakers should look into whether this office is equipped to do this job, and has the structure, mandate and funding to oversee national space traffic management.

Another recommendation is for the U.S. government to provide standards for satellites that lack maneuvering capability.

“Achieving security, economic, and societal objectives in the 21st century hinges on free and open access to outer space,” the report says. “The current regulatory vacuum on space traffic management leaves room for malign activity and unsustainable business practices … Now is the time to act and protect a future of security and prosperity in space.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...