To solve space traffic problems, look to the high seas

Can you start by introducing me to the field of space traffic management and situational awareness in space today? How would you rate how well the world is doing these things right now?

Space traffic management is an emerging field. We are only in the early stages, where discussions within the international community focus on the development of norms and standards of behavior. The fundamental objective of space traffic management is to prevent collisions in space. Collisions, by their nature, are debris-generating events, which pollute the domain itself and become less safe for future actors. It is therefore twofold: it is not only that a collision damages the satellites; a collision also causes long-term damage to the environment itself. And we see it very clearly in all the assessments of the [2009] Iridium-Cosmos collision.

Knowing the situation in space is a different thing: it’s about providing data. Different countries and companies around the world detect where these objects orbit and share what is there. For 50 years, you didn’t really need a lot of information other than [the location of debris so it can be avoided]. But as the orbital domain becomes more and more littered with trash, it’s not just a question of “How to avoid debris?” “Now is” How do you interact with others [satellite] operators up there? When there are two maneuverable satellites that want to be in the same place at the same time, that’s when you come to this question of management rather than spatial situational awareness.

In this sense, when there is a possible collision between two objects, what is the general process in place to prevent a disaster from ensuing? Is there a quick overview you can provide?

I looked to find an authoritative reference that talks about the end-to-end process. I wish I could say, “Go to this resource, and it will show you what happens from the time they look for a close approach until the decision is made whether or not to maneuver a satellite.” But it’s a bit opaque. Different operators have different internal processes that they do not necessarily want to share.

The US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Command Squadron constantly monitors the skies and reassesses the situation every eight hours. If they detect that a close-in approach is possible, they will send a conjunction alert to the owner-operator of the satellite. Then it’s up to the owner-operator to decide what to do with that information. And then the 18th will continue to monitor things. The projection of where something might be in space varies enormously depending on the object, its shape, its reaction to the atmosphere around it … If the operator intends to moving it voluntarily, this also changes the observations.

You have argued that while air traffic control may appear to be a sensitive analogue of space traffic control for obvious reasons, namely that it is about collision prevention, it is in fact a inappropriate model, and that maritime law provides a better one.

All international airspace in the world is allocated to a single state entity for the purpose of providing air traffic control services. So, for example, the United States controls 5 million square miles of domestic airspace but 24 million square miles of international airspace. They are the only ones authorized to provide these air traffic control services in this airspace under ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization].

Space has no such thing. But neither does the high seas. What the high seas have is a set of agreed-upon rules of behavior and authority over each ship: the state under which the ship’s flag is flown. There is no authority on the high seas that says yes or no, you can operate here and you cannot operate here. Everyone has access to this shared resource, and the principles of the freedom of the sea include the freedom of navigation, the freedom to fly, the freedom to lay cables underneath, the freedom to fish. In maritime agreements, there is the freedom to conduct commercial activities. It’s different from airspace, which historically was a purely transportation domain.

Orbital domain is not just for transport [either]. This is the area in which commercial activity takes place: telecommunications, remote sensing, etc.

Of course, maritime law also aims to prevent collisions on the high seas. Collision regulations, or colregs, dictate what is supposed to happen if two ships are [on course for] a head-on collision: who has priority to maneuver, what to do if something happens in a narrow channel… These kinds of principles are stated very clearly. They have a very clear applicability to the challenges we face in space. There are very clear parallels. Whereas if we take the aviation model, we are really trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

Are there setbacks or disagreements on the idea of ​​using maritime law as a source of inspiration for space law? Is the general consensus moving towards this idea?

I think it’s the trend this way, under [of the fact] that this is really the only viable way to go, but there is still discussion. It is not a realistic outcome for someone or a particular organism to decide what we can do, given the nature of the space realm. We don’t do space traffic like air traffic because it’s not just a matter of safety. It is a diplomatic question and an economic question as well.

It would be easy to hand over the control of space traffic to a single regulatory body, such as the 18th Space Control Squadron, which provides these services free of charge. But there are countries that distrust it [idea]. And then, of course, there is the matter of classified data. So you get into these complexities of trust – you know, if there was a global trust entity, then of course we could. [But] there are none that can be trusted by all, and trust is something that changes over time.

So the way forward is to create a way to share and trust this information. For example, I’m working on a project where we’re talking about blockchain as a catalyst for sharing trusted information. By the nature of the blockchain, you can determine who entered the information and validate it as a legitimate participant, and that information cannot be changed by a third party.

Space is often described as a new kind of Wild West – lawless and unregulated, and anything goes. How can a framework for something like space traffic management even be established if there is simply no defined path to establish rules to begin with?

I would say that space is not really the Wild West. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty obliges states to supervise objects that they allow to be launched from their countries. So it’s not unregulated; it’s not completely free. It’s just that we didn’t agree on what that actually means for continuous monitoring.

The Iridium-Cosmos accident was a wake-up call. It sparked a lot of activities, like the development of in-orbit maintenance technology To get rid of large objects that remain in space, as well as the development of commercial sensor networks so that we can have better situational awareness information in space.

The next big catalyst, I believe, is the mega-stellations. we see more [potential collision] alerts between two maneuverable satellites, which is a solvable problem if we have a set of rules. It puts a lot of pressure on the system to start making these deals. Capitalism is a pretty effective motivator. As people see more and more economic opportunities in popular orbits, balancing access to those orbits also becomes a motivator.

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