Transparency key to the future of space traffic management

by

WAILEA, Hawaii — It is possible to build improved space traffic management approaches to ensure safe operations in space, a panel of experts in the field said Sept. 18, but it will require more transparency among satellite operators.

A panel at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies, or AMOS, conference here, was asked to look ahead 10 years to what they envisioned the state of space situational awareness (SSA) would be.

Most were optimistic about that future, even with the projected growth in the number of launches and satellites. T.S. Kelso, senior research astrodynamicist at Analytical Graphics Inc., projected much more, and better, data coming from commercial providers, ultimately resulting in a “global SSA co-op or marketplace,” as well as widespread adoption of tracking devices that can be added to spacecraft and upper stages to make them easier to track.

He and others, though, said that satellite operators needed to be more open to sharing information about the positions of their satellites and maneuvers with others. “I think increased transparency is key. Share your data,” said Walter Everetts, vice president of satellite operations and ground development at Iridium. “There is no such thing as keeping it close the vest because that doesn’t help anybody.”

Iridium followed that approach with its original and new constellations. “We make sure that anything that we’re doing is transparent to every other operator out there,” he said. “We make sure that we communicate as much as we can, we share best practices, we do all of the things that can help space because we are just one of many people populating space.”

Transparency, though, is not enough. The panel said minimizing debris, by deorbiting spacecraft as soon as possible after the end of their lives, was critical. “Leaving satellites and launch debris in orbit for 25 years or longer is irresponsible,” Kelso said, a reference to the current 25-year post-mission disposal timeframe in orbital debris mitigation guidelines. What’s needed for the future, he said, is a “pack it in, pack it out” approach.

“In 2029, it’s not just about what you’re launching and what your mission does, but also what your post-mission disposal, your depressurization, all of the things that you need to do maintain that safe environment,” Everetts said.

As the number of satellites increases, the number of close approaches that require coordination between operators will grow. That can pose challenges, as in the recent case where the European Space Agency moved one of its satellites to avoid a conjunction with a SpaceX Starlink satellite after a glitch caused SpaceX to miss warnings about the collision hazard.

However, panelists said it’s too soon to start crafting rules on which satellite should be obligated to move in such situations. “The question of who moves over time will hammer itself out,” said Steph Earle, space traffic program lead at the Federal Aviation Administration. “We’ve seen this in all modes of transportation.”

He said that, in cases like the recent ESA/SpaceX close approach, where both satellites are maneuverable, it’s best to let the two operators work out who should move, in order to find the most efficient approach, rather than impose a strict rule. “Is there a way to mandate who moves without considering that efficiency? I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Smallsats, particularly educational cubesats, that lack propulsion pose another challenge. Kelso said that launch providers require such satellites demonstrate they have services for handling conjunction assessments before launching them, and perhaps also have the ability to maneuver.

Earle drew an analogy to other modes of transportation. “When do you take the bikes off the highway because they can’t keep up?” he asked. “I don’t know what will be the tipping point that moves us over that line, but I can argue that history shows we’ve always moved over that line.”

Even experts in SSA, though, are stumped by some issues, notably who will pay for new space traffic management systems that will develop, replacing the current approach largely paid for by the Defense Department.

Earle predicted some kind of “blend” between government and commercial actors, although how that will play out isn’t clear. “Cost is a difficult task, a difficult area.”

“It’s going to be a tricky subject,” said Everetts. “Who pays for it? I don’t know. It’s a good question.”