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Traffic Management in Outer Space: Call for a Global Civil System

Outer space is a busy thoroughfare of satellites operated by numbers of nations.

Earth orbits are crowded with active spacecraft, as well as dead or dying satellites – and countless bits of hazardous space debris.

Work is now underway to begin blueprinting a civilian space situational awareness system – a step toward global space traffic management. A recently held international meeting brought together some 500 specialists from America, Europe, Russia, and China – a cadre of experts in safety from the aerospace world to discuss how best to manage the active spacelanes of today and in the future.

Technical feasibility

At the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), held October 21-23 in Rome Italy, the meeting theme set the tone: “Building, Together, a Safer Space.”

Brian Weeden, Technical Consultant with the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a sponsor of the event, organized three space traffic management sessions, as well as a lively panel discussion on the technical feasibility of international civil space situational awareness, or SSA.

Weeden points out that until now SSA has generally only been talked about in a military context. “SSA is extremely important for military space, but there is a significant need for SSA in civilian space as well.”

Increasingly, it is commercial and civil satellites which are being placed into orbit, Weeden said, and the nations and companies that operate them need to have the awareness to be able to operate them in a safe and sustainable way.

“This SSA system needs to work in an international context, much the same way as aviation does. But very few companies and States have the resources to fund and operate their own SSA network,” Weeden observed.

Global conversation

The recently held IAASS Conference has started a global conversation on the technical feasibility and requirements of a civilian SSA system.

“Much of the data needed is already being collected by various actors, from scientific institutions to multinational companies to backyard satellite observers,” Weeden points out. “The difficulty is in breaking down the barriers between these disparate sources, making the different types and sources of data compatible, and distributing it in such a way as to protect the rights and privacy concerns of the different sources. It’s definitely a challenge, but so far we haven’t come across any insurmountable technical barriers,” he added.

Commercial companies who operate large, expensive communication satellites in the geostationary belt – a densely packed area 22,236 miles directly above the equator -- have already recognized the importance of this and have started the process.

Ensure transparency, reduce tensions

Given an ever-crowded and polluted space environment, space situational awareness is going to become more and more important for all space actors.

That’s the view of Theresa Hitchens, Director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. “Further, as military investment in space assets grow, it will be increasingly important to have a neutral, reliable source of SSA data for non-military actors.”

An attendee of this year’s IAASS meeting, Hitchens said that a civil SSA structure can help to ensure transparency and reduce tensions by providing data in an apolitical way.

“It seems to me that the effort by global satellite communication companies to develop better processes for sharing data among themselves and with governments is testimony to this need…as well as a solid first step,” Hitchens concluded.

Predicting and avoiding close approaches

Taking part in this year’s SWF co-sponsored IAASS program was T.S. Kelso, a Senior Research Astrodynamicist for Analytical Graphics, Inc.’s Center for Space Standards and Innovation, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Kelso runs CelesTrak, a powerful on-line satellite tracking tool, making use of orbital data provided by U.S. military’s North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

The analyst also offers Satellite Orbital Conjunction Reports Assessing Threatening Encounters in Space - or SOCRATES for short. This service provides regular information on pending conjunctions on orbit over the coming week.

Because of the potentially catastrophic consequences of such conjunctions going unnoticed, Kelso explains, it is hoped that this service will help satellite operators avoid undesired close approaches through advanced mission planning.

Kelso said that the IAASS meeting in Rome was set up specifically to promote space safety, and this year’s conference was focused on working together.

Kelso is teamed with eight operators of satellites in geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), receiving orbital data directly from them for 124 satellites to establish SOCRATES-GEO. “We are able to use this data…to provide much better SSA for predicting and avoiding close approaches,” he pointed out.

To enhance overall satellite situational awareness, “we’re encouraging as many satellite operators to participate as possible, since the more that participate, the better the overall SSA,” Kelso explained.

SWF’s Weeden foresees a system where commercial entities and States voluntarily pool their SSA data – with information then made available to all participants.

“Our goal is to bring more participants into this system and expand it into other congested and high-value areas of Earth orbit, such as Sun-synchronous orbit,” Weeden adds. “Eventually, such an international, civil SSA system might form the foundation for a global space traffic management system.”

Reporter’s note:

If you would like additional information on the civil Satellite Situational Awareness concept, please contact:

Brian Weeden
Technical Consultant
Secure World Foundation
+1 (514) 466-2756 Canada
+1 (202) 683-8534 US

Brian Weeden | Newswise Science News
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