Fractured Authorities Equal Shattered Satellites: Reforming Space Traffic Management

Photo: European Space Agency Satellite Break-Up

We don’t need the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The U.S. military has the radar to track aircraft and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the spectrum to communicate with and direct them. Nothing else is required for air traffic management. Sound ridiculous? It is! Unfortunately, such a scenario is playing out in the management of the increasingly congested space environment. Reforming space traffic management requires Congressional action to unify responsibility for tracking and regulating the movement of spacecraft and space objects within one agency.

The Changing Space Environment

Before Sputnik was launched in 1957, no human-made object had stayed in Earth’s orbit. Over the next 52 years, the number of satellites in orbit steadily rose to 986 in 2009. By 2021, a commercial launch and satellite boom resulted in active satellites rising to 4,877. This number is projected to rise to 100,000 by 2030. Currently, one satellite is destroyed each year by space debris. As the number of satellites in orbit increases, so too does the risk of collisions between satellites and other space objects and debris. A cascading creation of debris, termed the Kessler Syndrome, could eventually result in near earth orbit eventually becoming unusable.

What is Space Traffic Management (STM)?

The goal of STM is to ensure space is used in a sustainable way and prevent collisions in orbit. STM involves both space situational awareness (SSA) which is “the ability of…authorities to track spacecraft and space debris” and norms and regulations regarding “debris mitigation and remediation efforts” and “where space operators position their spacecraft.”

The Current (Fractured) Administrative Framework

Administration over space grew organically with the space sector itself. Currently, the Department of Defense (DoD) is responsible for space situational awareness since it was historically the only agency that had the technical capabilities (built initially to track incoming ICBMs) to track thousands of space objects. Over time the DoD reluctantly began to provide rudimentary STM services consisting of collision warnings for space operators.

The FCC’s primary regulatory role is overseeing the distribution of spectrum frequencies. Since all satellites require spectrum to communicate, the FCC also began licensing commercial satellites. In 2004, the FCC unilaterally assumed control over setting standards regarding the length of time a commercial satellite could stay in orbit.

One (Slow) Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3) of 2018 attempted to reform STM into a more centralized, civilian-led, and commercial-facing system that would combine both SSA and rule-making prerogatives. SPD-3 assigned responsibility for civilian-STM to the newly created Office of Space Commerce. Unfortunately, neither the DoD nor FCC seems willing to give up control over SSA or promulgating norms and rules.

A recent memorandum of agreement between the DoD and the Department of Commerce outlines how both agencies will “cooperate” to implement SPD-3. However, leaks indicate that the DoD will keep control over the “release of data” that it deems impactful to “national security interests.” Historically, the DoD does not frequently volunteer information it views as even remotely sensitive. Brian Weeden argues that “the DOD will [likely] still retain far too much control over SSA for the Dept of Commerce to really succeed at improving space safety.”

The FCC is likewise maintaining its control over rulemaking. Since the FCC licenses most commercial satellites, it retains the largest “stick” to force compliance with any new satellite regulations. The recent FCC-rule limiting the time defunct satellites can stay in orbit to five years indicates that the FCC has no intention of giving up regulatory control over the satellite industry to the Commerce Department. Both Congress and the Department of Commerce have objected to the new rule. In a September 27 open letter to the FCC, the House Committee on Space Technology and Security criticized the FCC for acting “unilaterally” and “without clear authority from Congress.” The Director of the Office of Space Commerce Richard DalBello noted on September 30 that the FCC had “pushed the boundaries of their authorities pretty aggressively.”

Praying for a Miracle: Congressional Action

Congress must empower the Office of Space Commerce so that it combines both technical SSA capabilities with rule-making authorities. The recently proposed ORBITS Act calls for Federal agencies to standardize orbital debris mitigation guidelines. This consensus-driven approach will likely fail. Four years after SPD-3, the DoD and FCC are no closer to relinquishing their respective grips over space traffic management. Only a change in law can break the deadlock between Commerce, the DoD, and the FCC and empower the Office of Space Commerce to become the space FAA we need it to be.

Figure 1Tracking CapabilityRegulatory Authority
Federal Aviation AdministrationYesYes
Department of DefenseYesNo
Federal Communication CommissionNoYes
Current Office of Space CommerceNoNo
Empowered Office of Space CommerceYesYes

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