To solve space traffic problems, look at the high seas


Can you begin by giving me the grounding of space traffic management and awareness of today’s space conditions? How would you rate how well the world is doing these things right now?

Space traffic management is quite an emerging field. We are in the early stages, with discussions in the international community revolving around the development of norms and standards of behaviour. The primary purpose of space traffic management is to prevent collisions in space. Collisions, by their nature, are debris-generating events, which cause the field itself to become polluted and less safe for future actors. So it’s twofold – not only that the collision destroys the satellites. The collision also causes long-term damage to the environment itself. We see it very clearly in all the reviews [2009] Iridium-Cosmos collision.

Awareness of the state of space is different — it’s about providing data. Different countries and companies around the world find out where these objects are in orbit and share what’s out there. For 50 years, you didn’t really need much information other than [the location of debris so it can be avoided]. But as the orbital field gets more and more crowded with junk, the question isn’t just “How do you avoid debris?” It’s now “How do you interact with others [satellite] operators there? When there are two maneuverable satellites that want to be in the same place at the same time, that’s when you get to that management question rather than an awareness of space conditions.

Along these lines, when there is a potential collision between two objects, what is the general process in place to prevent a catastrophe? Is there a quick scheme you can provide?

I have been on a quest to find a reliable reference that talks about the process from start to finish. I wish I could say, “Go to this resource, and it will show you what happens from the time they look for an approach close to the time the decision is made on whether to maneuver a satellite or not.” But it is a bit opaque. Different operators have different internal processes that they don’t necessarily want to share.

The US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Command Squadron constantly monitors the sky and reassesses the situation every eight hours. If they detect that a close approach is possible, they will issue an association alert to the owner and operator of the satellite. Then it goes to the player owner to decide what to do with this information. And then the eighteenth will continue to watch things. Projecting where something is in space varies greatly based on the object, how it was formed, and how it interacts with the atmosphere around it… If there is any intention by the operator to move it on purpose, that changes the feedback as well.

I have argued that while air traffic control may appear to be a reasonable counterpart to space traffic control for obvious reasons—that is, it is about preventing collisions—it is in fact an inappropriate model, and that maritime law actually provides a better model.

All international airspace in a single entity is designated for the purposes of providing air traffic control services. So, for example, the US controls 5 million square miles of domestic airspace but 24 million square miles of international airspace. They are the sole authority to provide air traffic control services in that airspace under the International Civil Aviation Organization [International Civil Aviation Organization].

Space does not have anything like that. But the high seas don’t have that either. What the high seas have is a set of agreed-upon rules of conduct and authority over every ship: the state under which a ship’s flag is raised. There is no authority on the high seas that says yes or no, you can work here and you cannot work here. Everyone has access to this common resource, and the principles of freedom of the sea include freedom of navigation, freedom to overfly, freedom to lay cables underneath, and freedom to fish. Within the maritime conventions, there is freedom to conduct commercial activities. This is different from airspace, which has historically been an area designated for transportation only.

The orbital field is not only transport [either]. It is the field in which business 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 there are two ships [on course for] Direct collision: who has priority in maneuvering, what to do if something happens in a narrow channel … This type of principle is laid out very clearly. They have a very clear applicability to the challenges we face in the field of space. There are very clear similarities. Whereas if we take the flight model, we are really trying to force a square hole into a round hole.

Is there opposition or disagreement about the idea of ​​using maritime law as inspiration for space law? Is the general consensus heading towards this idea?

I think it’s heading this way, by virtue of virtue [of the fact] It’s really the only viable path forward, but there’s always debate. Having an individual person or body decide what we can do is not a realistic outcome, given the nature of the space field. We don’t do space traffic like air traffic because it’s not just a safety issue. It is a diplomatic and economic issue as well.

Giving space traffic control to a single regulatory body would be easy, like the 18th Space Control Squadron, which provides these services for free. But there are countries that doubt that [idea]. And then, of course, there’s the matter of confidential data. So you get into these intricacies of trust – you know, if there’s one trusted global entity, surely we can do it. [But] There is no such thing as being trusted by everyone, and trust is something that changes over time.

So the way forward is to find a way to share and trust this information. For example, I’m working on a project where we’re talking about blockchain as an enabler for trusted information sharing. By the nature of the blockchain, you can determine who entered the information and validate it as a legitimate participant, and no third party can change this information.

Space is often described as a new kind of Wild West – outlaw, disorderly, anything goes. How can a framework be created for something like space traffic management if there is also no specific rule-making path to start with?

I would argue that space is not actually the Wild West. There is an obligation in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty for states to oversee the objects they allow to be launched from their countries. So it is not unorganized. It is not completely free. It’s just that we haven’t agreed on what that actually means to continue oversight.

The Iridium Cosmos incident was a wake-up call. Raised a lot of activity, such as the development of Service technology in orbit to me Get rid of the big stuff that remain in space, as well as evolution commercial sensor networks So that we can have better information and better awareness of space conditions.

I think the next big catalyst is massive stars. We see more [potential collision] Alerts between two maneuverable satellites, which is a solvable problem if we have a set of rules. This creates a lot of pressure on the system to start reaching these agreements. Capitalism is a very effective stimulus. As people see more and more economic opportunities in popular orbits, balancing access to those orbits also becomes a catalyst.



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