White House official: Norms needed for ‘satellite to satellite interaction’

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Audrey Schaffer: 'We’re going to see more cooperative and potentially uncooperative close approaches between space objects'

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration in December released a broadly worded space policy document that recognizes growing military threats in space and calls for a rules-based international order.

With those issues in mind, the administration soon needs to start addressing more specific questions, Audrey Schaffer, director of space policy at the National Security Council, said Jan. 26.

One emerging concern, she said, is whether the United States should consider adopting rules for satellite-servicing vehicles that dock with other satellites or use robotic arms to grab a client spacecraft. With more U.S. and foreign companies now getting into the in-orbit servicing market, there is a risk that a debris-removal or refueling robot could be mistaken for an aggressor. 

“It’s critically important that we develop basic norms for satellite to satellite interaction to avoid the risk of miscalculation and misperception,” Schaffer said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies and Secure World Foundation panel discussion on how to manage the risks of satellite close approaches in geostationary orbit.

“With the advent of space surveillance, satellite servicing and satellite inspection, we’re going to see more cooperative and potentially uncooperative close approaches between space objects,” she said.

The private sector for years has debated this issue and has been working on technical and safety standards for in-orbit servicing. But a deeper discussion on international norms may be warranted, said Schaffer. “I don’t claim to have all the answers here,” she said. “There is more work to be done in this area, particularly for new space services and applications that don’t sort of neatly fit into existing categories.”

A set of basic rules for satellite interaction could address, for example, safe separation distances, “especially in instances where you don’t have transparency or means to coordinate,” said Schaffer. 

Depending on who’s doing the inspecting and what they are inspecting, she noted, actions could be misperceived and that could “literally make the difference between a non-event and an incident of serious national concern, as we’ve seen with some of the orbit weapons testing that’s happened over the past couple of years.”