America wants to protect the world’s satellites from space junk; here’s how

By: | Published: April 18, 2018 1:09 PM

Under Trump administration plans, the Commerce Department would be the leading U.S. agency in tracking space objects and alerting space users to potential collisions, taking over a role traditionally handled by the Air Force.

satellites, Air Force, America, US, Space Symposium, SpaceX, OneWeb, Wilbur RossThe Air Force currently tracks space objects larger than 10 centimeters and issues alerts to satellite operators—and other nations—about potential collisions.

Under Trump administration plans, the Commerce Department would be the leading U.S. agency in tracking space objects and alerting space users to potential collisions, taking over a role traditionally handled by the Air Force. The agency would also assume responsibility for tracking space debris while devising new, best practices to coordinate the coming profusion of thousands of additional commercial platforms operating in space.

The Air Force currently tracks space objects larger than 10 centimeters and issues alerts to satellite operators—and other nations—about potential collisions. Over time, the Commerce Department would take over space traffic oversight to provide traffic management and situational awareness for objects, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Tuesday during a speech at the Space Symposium, a major annual military-industrial space conference held in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

That task is growing increasingly important. Newer, lower-cost technologies and launch systems, along with venture capital and ambitious billionaires, have made space an explosive place for startups. The new civil agency within Commerce would oversee the international effort to more closely monitor the satellites—and junk—that populate various Earth orbits. Thousands of pieces of debris, spent satellites and used rockets circle Earth; a further 600,000 objects from 1 to 10 centimeters in size are not tracked closely.

All of these pose potential catastrophe for the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 satellites currently surrounding the globe. Soon, there will be additional constellations of smaller satellites sent up by SpaceX, OneWeb and other companies.

The U.S. government will ensure “a seamless transition” from Air Force supervision of space traffic “before any big changes are finalized,” Ross said. “The regulatory framework is over 25 years old and no longer meets the burgeoning needs of space markets.”

In its general stance toward space commercialization, Commerce will adopt “the mindset of a sensible facilitator” for space companies and not act as a traditional regulatory agency, Ross said. Currently, companies operating in space must typically work with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Communication, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense or other agencies to obtain necessary approvals for their activities.

“The regulatory framework is over 25 years old and no longer meets the burgeoning needs of space markets and technologies,” Ross said.

The National Space Council devised the new structure and will send it to the White House for review, Vice President Mike Pence said Monday at the Colorado conference. In its first year of work, the council has designated the Commerce Department as the lead agency for advancing U.S. commercial space interests, charging Ross with creating “a one-stop shop for space commerce” within the government for licensing and other regulatory reviews.

The Pentagon is ready to shed the responsibility of orbital tracking and notifications, Ross said, following a lunch Monday with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Ross also met with executives from eight space companies to hear criticism of the current U.S. regulatory framework. “We want to do baby steps,” he said.

Today, 70 nations have assets operating in space, and that number is likely to grow. Ross said the department will consider ways to broaden tracking coverage; it plans to convene an international conference by January to discuss awareness and traffic management with international companies operating in space.

“If we don’t act now, someone else will,” Ross said. When asked whether China and Russia are likely to endorse the Trump administration’s plans for space traffic management, Ross said, “I really don’t know. Hopefully, they will see the need for standards.”

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