In part because of the advent of satellite megaconstellation projects such as OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, an American Astronomical Society predicts that we might have more than 100,000 satellites orbiting the Earth by 2030—a figure that would just outstrip our ability to track them all. Experts have frequently urged for a more effective structure for controlling space traffic and mitigating a future epidemic of satellite collisions. Still, the world’s most powerful space powers have been slow to respond, according to experts. While this is going on, an increasing number of items are zooming alarmingly near to one another.
Among the suggestions made by Ruth Stilwell, executive director of the Aerospace Policy Solutions and adjunct faculty fellow at the Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, is one for improving space traffic management. She says that we should turn to the maritime legislation and regulations that have evolved over dozens of years to advise us on how ships and other vessels should behave on the high seas.
Ruth was asked several questions: Can you start by giving a general overview of the current state of space traffic administration and space situational awareness in the world today? What criteria would you use to determine how well the world is currently performing in these areas?
Space traffic management is a field that is still in its infancy. We are in the early stages of establishing norms and norms of conduct in the international community, and the conversations are taking place at a high level. The primary goal of space traffic management is to keep spacecraft from colliding with one another. Collisions are by their very nature debris-generating occurrences, which pollute the domain and make it less safe for future players to operate in. Therefore, it is a two-fold problem: not only does a collision harm satellites, but it also creates long-term harm to the environment itself. In fact, we can see this quite clearly in all of the studies of the Iridium-Cosmos collision that occurred in 2009.
Space situational awareness, on the other hand, is concerned with the provision of data. Different governments and firms worldwide are detecting the locations of these objects in orbit and sharing their findings with one another. It wasn’t really necessary to have much information for the first 50 years, other than [the whereabouts of debris so that it could be avoided]. However, as the orbital domain grows increasingly clogged with trash, it is no longer just a question of “How do you avoid debris?” “How do you connect with other [satellite] providers up there?” the question is now. As soon as two maneuverable spacecrafts wish to be in the same area simultaneously, the subject of management arises, rather than the topic of space situational awareness.