editorial | Congress must act now to avert catastrophe in space
More than 1,500. That’s the extra debris now floating in low Earth orbit due to the reckless and irreversible Russian anti-satellite test last November.
An additional 13,000 small satellites will be added by the Chinese when they deploy a large constellation to provide internet services.
Then consider US licensed companies that have already launched more than 2,000 satellites out of the tens of thousands of satellites planned over the next decade.
All of this must be added to the approximately 40,000 objects currently tracked by US Space Command. As an engineer, I can do math all day. I appreciate. What’s not so fun is dealing with the pressing problem that tens of thousands of objects traveling at around 17,500 mph in low Earth orbit threaten launch vehicles, space assets and human lives.
It was just over a decade ago when the Iridium 33 and the derelict Russian military communications satellites Kosmos 2251 collided, creating thousands of new pieces of debris and a permanent headache for the crews on board. of the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, astronauts aboard the ISS have witnessed a significant number of near misses. It is only a matter of time before the next catastrophic event takes place – one in which lives or key commercial and national security assets are lost. How many more hiccups will it take before Congress acts? Should we wait for this disaster? For the good of all of us, I hope not.
It’s not melodramatic to say it’s a four-alarm fire. We in the space sector smell the smoke and see the flames. The executive branch also recognizes the urgency. Two successive US presidential administrations have asserted the need for the United States to develop a national space traffic management (STM) function. Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD3) directed the Department of Commerce (DOC) to make space security data and services available to the public, while the Department of Defense manages the authoritative catalog of space objects. The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) would be the civilian agency charged with performing the STM tasks outlined in SPD-3, and this position was reaffirmed by a Congress-led study of the National Academy of Public Administration. Although the DOC has taken some initial steps, including creating an open-architecture data repository, critical elements remain unresolved, hampering the ability of U.S. industry to anticipate what will be needed for responsible use. from space. This is an unacceptable situation that only Congress can resolve.
That’s why the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is leading an effort to advance the STM issue. We brought together major players in the space industry, as well as insurance, finance, international, legal and technical sectors, all of whom underscored the urgency of this issue with key congressional staff.
Our positions and recommendations are simple:
• We strongly support the full implementation of SPD-3.
• We call on Congress to authorize the OSC as the government office responsible for the civil responsibilities of the STM.
• In addition, the CSO should be elevated to the rank of direct subordinate to the Under Secretary of Commerce.
• The CSO should receive adequate funding to hire the necessary human resources and establish the required data systems.
• The CSO should also eventually become a small office within the department and be headed by an assistant secretary.
Such actions will give CSO the gravity and agility to work at the highest levels of the department and across government agencies to coordinate and establish a national civilian STM function, as well as engage authoritatively in multi-stakeholder discussions at the global level. ‘foreigner.
I must acknowledge that the US Senate passed the SPACE Act, which codifies elements of SPD-3 by formally assigning civil space situational awareness responsibilities to the DOC. It’s encouraging; however, more needs to be done. Hurry up. We cannot afford to wait for a catastrophic event before appropriate action is taken to resolve this issue.
The space community is unanimous: Congress must act now on space traffic management to provide stability and certainty, so the commercial sector can continue to innovate and invest in new businesses that continue to build a robust space economy.
Dan Dumbacher is the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.