Satellite Collisions Are a Mounting Threat. Updated ‘Rules of the Road’ Could Help

Satellite Collisions Are a Mounting Threat. Updated ‘Rules of the Road’ Could Help

Orbit is increasingly becoming a busy highway, with more companies launching hoards of satellites above our skies. With all those spacecraft cruising in Earth orbit, a group of industry representatives is suggesting new guidelines for “road safety” in space.

The Space Safety Coalition (SSC) updated its set of guidelines for space operations to include “rules of the road,” a list of best practices to avoid collisions between spacecraft. SSC updated its “Best Practices for the Sustainability of Space Operations” document on Tuesday, adding additional rules for satellite operators that include technical recommendations and operating procedures.

“The SSC’s new guidelines are particularly important given today’s rapidly increasing risk of collisions,” Dan Oltrogge, SSC founder and administrator, said in the coalition statement. “Best practices spanning all phases of the spacecraft life cycle must keep pace as our use of and reliance upon space ever deepens.”

The original document was released in 2019 when the SSC was founded. The SCC is a coalition of 48 organisations, both commercial and government-owned, that promotes a safe and sustainable environment in space. The SSC builds on official guidelines already in place, such as the United Nations’ Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines released in 2007, although those guidelines are outdated and not heavily enforced. “It’s well recognised that there are significant gaps in the global governance of outer space, including in safety, sustainability, and traffic management,” Jessica West, a senior researcher on outer space security at Project Ploughshares, told Gizmodo in an email.

“I think that these guidelines are helping to push the envelop on governance by adding much more detail to what such broad rules look like in practice,” West added. “They’re also tackling issues that we are only beginning to think about at places such as the United Nations, such as ‘rules of the road’ for manoeuvring in space and how to exchange information for flight safety and collision avoidance, which I think states could learn from.”

The new guidelines suggest that spacecraft operators exchange information in regards to avoiding collision; that launch vehicles should be deorbited in a way that ensures a causality risk below one in 10,000; and that spacecraft should be designed with the ability to perform timely and effective collision avoidance manoeuvres.

The guidelines also include rules to follow during a collision avoidance manoeuvre, whereby priority is given to crewed spacecraft. Just last month, for example, the International Space Station was forced to swerve out of the way to avoid a collision with a commercial satellite.

The new set of rules is not enforceable, but serves more as a framework for spacecraft operators. “These best practices clearly set aspirational targets to encourage all space actors to advance towards a safer, more responsible and sustainable use of space,” Charles Law, senior manager of flight dynamics at SES, a telecommunication satellite company, said in the statement. “Importantly, these best practices seek to stop intentional collisions and fragmentations, and it is encouraging to see a framework to coordinate between manoeuvrable satellites and to exchange orbit information.”

As the space industry continues to grow, safety rules will need to be implemented on a larger scale to avoid hazardous events taking place above our heads. However, it’s not entirely clear which organisation will step up to fill that regulatory role. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking to establish a Space Bureau to expand on its duties for the satellite and communications industry. In September 2022, the FCC issued an order that would require satellites to reenter Earth’s atmosphere just five years after their missions end, rather than the current 25-year deadline.

SSC’s updated set of guidelines have so far been signed by 27 industry representatives, including manufacturers, launch providers, and spacecraft operators, according to the SSC. Even if the new road rules cannot be enforced, they can help promote safety in space. “Efforts to publicise and promote these guidelines can go a long way to raising awareness and socialising commercial operators to build safety and sustainability considerations into their operations,” West said.

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