NASA CubeSats Heading into Orbit (Artist's Concept) Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

LOGAN, Utah — As the number of cubesats and other small satellites grows, experts advise that some degree of industry self-regulation will be needed to avoid collisions that could lead to more restrictive government regulations.

During a panel session at the 31st Annual Conference on Small Satellites here Aug. 6, representatives from across the smallsat community said that while the odds of a collision involving a smallsat remained low, such an event could trigger an overreaction of government regulations if the community isn’t prepared.

“The worst-case scenario would be to have this kind of thing happen and they’re scrambling to figure out what to do about it, and they just do something that’s not informed,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, referring to a reaction by U.S. government agencies to a collision involving a smallsat. “That’s where you get bad policy decisions.”

A better outcome, he said, would be if smallsat operators prepared for such an event by developing their own recommendations for policies ahead of time. “If the community could have a solution, or just a way to improve things, ready to go, then you have an opportunity to get some positive change made,” he said.

Owen Brown, vice president for research and development at Scientific Systems, said one way to do that would be through an industry organization. “What we’re proposing is the development of a self-regulatory organization,” he said. “This is a way to provide the technical underpinnings for what those right approaches are and to really create a culture of safety within our own community.”

This approach, he said, would be an alternative to a “top-down approach” of regulations imposed by government agencies. “There are some, especially inside the Beltway, who believe that regulation is necessary,” he said.

Brown was a co-author of a paper presented later that the conference that proposed the creation of such a self-regulatory body, dubbed the Smallsat Space-traffic Safety Consortium, modeled on industry organizations in other fields like nuclear power. Such an organization would craft best practices and voluntary industry standards regarding issues such as collision avoidance and orbital lifetimes.

“What we’re proposing is that that’s where you want the work to be handled,” said Carlos Niederstrasser of Orbital ATK, a co-author of the paper, in an Aug. 10 talk at the conference. “By keeping it at that low level, you’re able to have the best interests of the community in mind, rather than just let the government dictate what’s going to happen.”

“If we self-regulate, it will stop the U.S. government—DOD, NASA—from coming in and reacting potentially very negatively to an incident and then putting a damper on the creativity and the innovation that’s going on in the smallsat community,” he said.

While panelists in the earlier session discussed ways to get ahead of any reaction to a collision involving a cubesat, they also emphasized that the risk such spacecraft pose to the space environment remains small, even as their numbers proliferate.

“The risk is not large at the moment,” said Glenn Peterson, senior engineering specialist at The Aerospace Corporation, based on models of the effect of introducing large numbers of cubesats into various orbits. Taking steps to mitigate the creation of debris, such as flying cubesats in orbits that comply with current guidelines that call for deorbiting within 25 years after the end of life, should keep collisions risks manageable in the future.

“You’re not the big source of the problem going forward,” he said to the audience of smallsat developers, “but you still have the responsibility as a community to behave properly and try to keep things as clean as possible.”

That’s largely the case today, argued one of the original developers of the cubesat standard. “There’s been a lot of hype out there about the threat from cubesats,” said Jordi Puig-Suari, a professor of aerospace engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and co-founder of Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems. “I would say 99.999 percent of the people flying are following all the rules.”

He acknowledged, though, that there are still concerns about how much knowledge new cubesat developers have about issues like orbital debris mitigation guidelines. That could be a bigger issue in the future as dedicated smallsat launch vehicles enter service, giving satellite developers the ability to specify their desired orbit rather than simply accept an orbit offered by a rideshare launch opportunity.

“Somebody could go buy themselves a rocket and put themselves into an orbit that is not appropriate,” he said.

“My concern would be if there’s something we did wrong,” Puig-Suari said later in the panel, such as a cubesat equipped with a propulsion system that malfunctions and puts the satellite into an orbit that threatens a much larger satellite. “That would be something that would really upset people. That’s where we need to avoid making those unforced errors.”

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...