WASHINGTON — Safe deployment of satellites by governments and commercial companies is going to be increasingly difficult in the absence of globally accepted rules and incentives to make space a sustainable environment, executives said.

Current efforts to develop “norms of behavior” for safe space operations are fragmented and not well coordinated, said Jennifer Warren, vice president of civil and regulatory affairs at Lockheed Martin.

Speaking July 20 at an online event hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Warren said space sustainability is a common objective of many countries “but I really think achieving and maintaining it requires a level of international collaboration and cooperation that we’re still aspiring to.”

Government agencies and private sector players want the same things: a robust space economy and a safe operating environment where the risks of  collisions and electronic interference are minimized, Warren said. “And how we get there? I would suggest it’s through not uniquely inter governmental or uniquely private sector discussions, but through a very robust multi-stakeholder approach.”

Federal agencies, industries, academia and non-governmental organizations  “have to all get together to drive a common set of norms,” said Warren. Norms should be “harmonized, if not standardized” so space actors are not incentivized to adopt the rules of one regulatory forum over another.

Warren said Lockheed Martin has advocated for satellite operators to adopt  the World Economic Forum’s Space Sustainability Rating (SSR). The WEF is developing a rating system to score manufacturers and operators based on factors such as plans to de-orbit systems upon completion of missions; choice of orbital altitude; ability of systems to be detected and identified from the ground; collision-avoidance measures; size and number of objects left in space from the launch vehicle; and sharing of data. 

By voluntarily participating in the SSR system, missions would earn a certification and rating based on how they contribute to space sustainability.

Lockheed Martin Space has volunteered for its satellites to be beta testers for the SSR, Warren said. “Although it’s voluntary, it’s expected to promote responsible behavior by operators, manufacturers, and launch service providers through that scoring.”

“It’s one effort, but it’s an important first step,” she said. 

Warren noted that the Defense Department has started a process to develop norms for space behavior. This is good news, she said. “But we need to really prioritize the global dialogue with everyone at the virtual table so to speak.”

“One of the things we have to figure out is how do we make sure we’re touching the entire space environment when we’re creating norms, not just one component of it, because that’s not enough,” Warren said. 

The lack of norms for space traffic is just one problem that satellite operators face. Another is the presence of hazardous debris accumulated over decades, said Charity Weeden, vice president of global space policy at Astroscale, an orbital debris removal and satellite servicing company.

Even if the industry takes steps to not create more space junk, the existing trash has to be cleaned up, she said. 

Weeden said governments have left large objects in space and should pay to remove at least some of the space junk. “This is probably the number one question I get asked,” Weeden said. “Due to the lack of financial consequences of a throwaway culture in space over the last six decades, it’s difficult to come up with the right answer, but I can tell you, off the top, that we will all pay if we don’t do something.”

At least 1,000 metric tons of objects left in orbits are government owned, said Weeden. “And so I do feel that there is some level of government commitment that needs to be had to remediate some of this trash, these threats to the space environment.”

There are also incentives for commercial spacecraft operators to want to clean up space, said Weeden. “Conjunctions have doubled in the last four or five years, and these are really close calls — a kilometer or less in orbit. So there is a financial impact of congestion in orbit.” 

A central question is “what is the value of a clean orbit or a predictable orbit?” she said. “If we can draw that value, maybe we can have some good solid economic discussions of what we can do to incentivize folks to drive toward responsible behaviors.”

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...