There are so many things orbiting the Earth, and more is happening all the time. More than 29,000 satellites, pieces of rockets and other debris large enough to be tracked from the ground circle the planet. Small articles run into the millions. California-based SpaceX alone has launched some 1,700 satellites over the past 2 years as part of its Starlink network, which provides high-speed internet, and thousands more are planned. Other companies are planning such mega-stellations as well, and more and more countries are launching or planning to launch satellites.
This increasing congestion greatly increases the risk of collisions in space. At the European Space Agency‘s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, which controls major research spacecraft, hundreds of email alerts arrive every day to warn of possible space crashes. And, in May, NASA engineers spotted a 5-millimeter-wide hole in one of the International Space Station‘s robotic arms, created by a collision with unknown space debris.
These close calls not only underscore the need to think more about what we put in space, but also that it is high time the global space community developed a sustainable framework for space traffic management. Such a move would benefit both scientists who rely on orbiting observations and humanity as a whole, as satellites are essential for modern communication and navigation.
The story offers some lessons on how to operate safely in newly crowded areas. At the start of the 20th century, aviation flourished and pilots encountered traffic jams in the sky. Air traffic controllers eventually developed a coordination system between cities and across borders, sharing information about aircraft locations so pilots could avoid crashing into each other.
But there are no traffic officers in space, nor international borders with clearly demarcated areas of responsibility. To avoid further damage, it is essential that satellite operators have an accurate and up-to-date list of object locations in space. Currently, the world’s leading catalog of space objects is published on Space-Track.org by the US Space Command, a branch of the military. The catalog is the most widely used public list available, but it lacks some satellites that countries – including the United States, China and Russia – have not publicly recognized. Partly because of this lack of transparency, other countries also track space objects and some private companies maintain catalogs commercially available.
Rather than this patchwork of incomplete sources, what the world needs is a unified space traffic management system. Through this, space nations and companies could agree to share more of their tracking data and cooperate to make space safer. This might require the creation of a new global regime, such as an international convention, through which technical rules and standards could be organized. An analogy is the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency that coordinates global telecommunications issues such as who can transmit in which parts of the radio spectrum.
It will not be easy to create such a system for space traffic. In order for it to be successful, security issues (such as avoiding breaking a satellite) will need to be separated from security issues (such as whether that satellite is spying on another nation) so that countries can be assured that participating in such an effort will not compromise. not national security. Countries could, for example, share information about a satellite’s location without sharing details of its capabilities or purpose of being in space.
A short-term move that would help would be for the United States to complete the planned transfer of responsibility for the Space-Track.org catalog from the military to the Civilian Department of Commerce. Because this catalog has historically been the most widely used in the world, transferring it to a civilian agency could begin to defuse geopolitical tensions and thus improve global efforts to deal with space debris. This could one day fuel a global space traffic agreement between nations; even the nascent space superpower, China, would have a strong incentive to participate, despite rivalries with the United States. The transition was called for in a 2018 US presidential directive that recognizes that businesses take over from national governments as dominant players in the space, but it has yet to take place, in part because Congress did not allocate the necessary funds.
On August 25, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will meet to discuss a range of topics related to international cooperation in space. The UN is the right forum through which space nations can work together to set standards for responsible space behavior, and that should include how the world can track objects to make space safer. It is expected to continue its recent work with a focus on space as a safe and sustainable environment, which at least brings countries like the United States and China into the same conversation.
Basic research also has a role to play: innovations such as techniques to track and display the position of orbiting objects in real time and artificial intelligence to automate debris avoidance maneuvers could strengthen any global effort to monitor and regulate space.
If governments and businesses around the world don’t take urgent action to work together to make space safer, they will one day face a catastrophic collision that will incapacitate one or more satellites critical to their safety, their economic well-being or both. Space is a global common good and a global resource. A global organization responsible – and able to – manage the flow of space traffic is long overdue.