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Trump’s space council orders a traffic control system for objects in space

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Laying the groundwork now ahead of a boom in activity in Earth orbit

Image: NASA

The US government is moving to tackle the problem of space junk. Shortly after he announced his intentions to create a “space force” wing of the military on Monday, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD3) at the third meeting of the newly revived National Space Council. It’s the most concerted effort by the US government to spin up a traffic control system for all the objects that orbit Earth.

The directive sets new goals for NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Transportation with the aim of improving each agency’s approach toward mitigating the growing problem of space debris. Those goals include making it easier to detect smaller space junk, improving these agencies’ observation techniques and the algorithms used to process that data, making the data more open and accessible, and spreading out some of the space traffic management tasks to lighten the burden on any one agency.

SPD3 also offers guidance to meet these goals. NASA, for instance, was told that it needs to rework its guidelines for satellite design and production, while the Department of Commerce will take control of how the public will access data about space debris, which was previously the DOD’s purview.

There is a lot of stuff in orbit around our planet. There are nearly 2,000 satellites, two space stations, and tons of debris. In all, there are over 20,000 orbital objects that are bigger than a softball and more than 500,000 that are bigger than a marble. Making sure things don’t crash into each other in orbit is paramount for companies that launch rockets or operate satellites, and the chance of a collision is only growing, especially as the satellite business booms. Meanwhile, someday soon there could be space tourists, adding an even bigger element of mortal danger to the mix.

“Unfettered access and freedom to operate in space are vital to US interests, however the space operating environment is becoming increasingly congested, and current space traffic management activities are inadequate to address this rising challenge,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said on a call with reporters before the signing. “This policy establishes foundational principles, lays out achievable goals, provides specific guidance to achieve each goal, and establishes clear rules and responsibilities for US government departments and agencies.

There’s a lot that SPD3 doesn’t say, which is by design, according to Pace. Much like the previous two Space Policy Directives issued by the National Space Council as well as a number of other department directives issued under Trump, the government is shying away from being overly prescriptive.

SPD3 doesn’t address the challenge (or potential solutions) of cleaning up space debris. There’s also not a specific timeline in place to roll out the changes, Pace said. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “We’re basically getting everybody in their lanes and people pulling in the same direction.” But when it starts to take hold, some experts say the new space traffic management system could help clear the path for a widely expected increase of off-Earth activity.

While collisions in space are rare, they can be catastrophic because objects in orbit travel at incredibly high speeds — tens of thousands of miles per hour. When an active commercial satellite was struck by a long-dead Russian satellite in 2009, for instance, that one collision alone created thousands of new pieces of trackable debris and many more too small to follow.

Keeping track of space junk has exclusively been the job of the Department of Defense. But that’s about to change with SPD3, which gives the Department of Commerce the power to take over some of the DOD’s current jobs related to space debris.

The DOD currently tracks objects hurtling around our planet using a combination of radar and ground and space-based telescopes. The agency’s primary focus is national security, but it also uses this data to help keep those objects from crashing into each other. If the DOD sees that, say, a hunk of an old spacecraft is going to get too close to an active satellite, it will alert the company in control of the satellite so they can avoid a collision. A DOD contractor called Science Applications International Corporation assembles all that information into a database that anyone can access for free, given prior approval. There are restrictions on how the data can be shared, though, since there could be national security concerns.

That last bit is part of why some people don’t like the current system: anything that slows or stems the flow of information about orbital objects and whether or not a collision might happen can be costly.

So the core of SPD3 is about making the data even more accessible, though the solution is to bring another agency into the mix. Going forward, the DOD will continue to maintain that official catalog of objects, but the Commerce Department will be in charge of releasing the information to the public as well as building an open repository that will make it easier to access the data.

How the open repository would work exactly isn’t clear, but Pace said the new system will give companies “more timely and more rapid access to information” so they can better plan the paths of their satellites. This could mean making fewer maneuvers to avoid other objects, which could save fuel. It could also allow more flexibility when it comes to launch times. One reason rocket launches are delayed often is the companies are given tight windows to take off, in part because of concern about collisions.

While it’s tempting to liken the Space Council’s idea to the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system, the analogy falls apart in a key way, says Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the space policy NGO the Secure World Foundation. “In the air traffic world, every single airplane is under control. In the space traffic world, something like 5 percent or fewer of the objects orbiting the Earth are actually under control,” he says. In other words, when you can only steer under 2,000 of the 20,000 or more pieces of debris circling the Earth, the traffic system needs to be robust.

Laying the right groundwork now is especially key because, at some point, there’s going to be an increase in human activity in space, Weeden says. The US is about to start flying its own astronauts again for the first time in seven years. Private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, are promising that they’ll soon fly tourists near or in low Earth orbit. And there’s talks of private space stations, maybe even space “hotels,” going up into orbit in the coming decades. Space debris is no longer just a problem of metal crashing into metal.

The fact that Trump administration is officially recognizing that space junk is not just a national security issue but that it’s also about keeping private satellites, astronauts, and future space tourists safe is a “an important step forward,” Weeden says. “That’s a really big change, right? That acknowledgement that this is bigger than just the military, and giving a formal role to a civil agency.”

A NASA visualization of orbital debris and micrometeoroids surrounding the Earth.
Image: NASA

It’s not a new idea. Space traffic management has actually been in the works for a while, Weeden says. When the Obama administration issued its space policy in 2010, one of the directives was to shore up awareness and control of orbital traffic. “They worked on it for several years, but they weren’t able to actually reach a decision,” he says. “However, they kind of set a lot of the background studies and debates and information that led to what you’re seeing from the Trump administration.”

The decision to finally push forward was catalyzed by a few things, according to Pace. The amount of space debris is increasing, and so is the number of satellites being launched into orbit. And when the “mega-constellations” that companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are working on are in orbit, the potential for collisions will inherently go up.

“Looking at the rapid launch rates that would be necessary to support some of the mega-constellations I think really crystallized everyone’s attention. And we realized that, if this going to be successful, we’re going to expand the economy in space, that we need to make sure it’s done in a sustainable way,” Pace said.

A sustainable traffic system has to adapt and survive the rapidly changing landscape of the space industry, and there’s some concern that SPD3 doesn’t do enough to ensure that this happens. SPD3 leaves room to incorporate “commercial sector technologies” into the space traffic management system, but it’s not clear what that means.

Figuring out how the government handles this — will the DOD and the Commerce Department be truly free to involve private companies in the gathering of data when national security issues are at play? — will be key going forward, says Weeden, because some private companies are developing similar orbital tracking tech.

“This is where I don’t think this policy goes quite far enough,” he says. “Historically, this has been something where it was the DOD that had the best capabilities. But in the last five years or so, we’ve seen a whole bunch of commercial companies get into this space, and they’re now deploying their own radars and telescopes. And they’re providing some really good SSA [space situational awareness] capabilities that, in some cases, rival what the DOD can do.”

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and space analyst at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, agrees. McDowell is well-known in the space industry for his ability to find and follow objects in space (something he documents often on Twitter), especially ones that leave low Earth orbit and go beyond the typical bounds of the DOD’s systems — like Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster.

He, along with academics and hobbyists, does this by starting with the DOD’s data. But there are almost always gaps to fill. Those gaps are sometimes there deliberately because the DOD is restricting information about military satellites. They’re also sometimes there by omission, since the DOD only typically cares about objects in low Earth orbit, not ones floating around between planets.

So McDowell and others turn to other sources to fill in those gaps: crowdsourced data, the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center, and even private companies. Firms like Analytical Graphics, Inc., or LeoLabs, he says, “have the potential, once they get more funding, to do a better job [of tracking objects] in many ways than the DOD is currently doing.”

As the number of players with an interest in space traffic and debris increases, a premium will be placed on creating the most complete dataset, regardless of national security limitations. This means the government, especially the DOD, might wind up outmatched.

That’s not terribly surprising, McDowell says. After all, the reason the DOD has any of this data in the first place is because it needs to track the other objects in orbit so that it doesn’t confuse them for missiles. “Ultimately, at the DOD, job number one is ‘is Russia launching a mass missile attack on the United States,’” he says. But taking a more conservative approach can be prohibitive.

“NASA still does awesome, innovative things, so you know you can hope,” McDowell says. But largely, the government is “not doing innovation as quickly as a commercial company can.”

The question now, McDowell says, is whether the Commerce Department just repurposes the DOD’s data, or whether it builds on that data with information from other companies and, perhaps, even other countries. It might have to do this if the National Space Council is going to live up to the bold language of SPD3. (At one point, it states that the goal is to “shape international norms” regarding space traffic management.)

“The potential is there,” McDowell says. “I think that’s the critical question.”