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When Satellites Collide! How to Avoid.


Anti-satellite weapons. There. We've got your attention.

The reason I'm taking this approach is the topic we are really discussing -- space situational awareness (SSA) is something lots of people know very little about because almost everything about it is so highly classified that people don't even know they don't know what they've never heard of. But the results of SSA failures can be pretty obvious and dramatic. Have a look at the debris map.

But we've got somebody who actually does know a lot about this, defense consultant and space intelligence expert Robert Butterworth. Butterworth wrote an op-ed for us about SSA in advance of a two-day Space Situational Awareness Conference, put on by the Marshall Institute and others, starting Monday. For this who pay attention to dollars alone, consider this. Air Force Gen. Bob Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, told reporters at the Air Force Association conference in Orlando that "several billion dollars" are being spent on SSA. But, of course, he couldn't discuss what it's being spent on...

Bob offers a highly readable and moderately controversial plan for an international fund to pay for better space situational awareness to help lessen the chances of satellite collisions like the recent one between an Iridium satellite and a dead Russian bird.

Space Situational Wariness

“What’s a heaven for?” asked Browning. “For organizing,” seems to be today’s answer, as papers, speeches, seminars, workshops, and conferences pile upon one another urging diverse prescriptions to keep space safe for everyone. The wild west approach to the final frontier cannot be allowed to continue: Space is too important in too many ways, and there are now too many players and too many things in the desirable orbits.

The remedies proposed are legion. There are top-down plans, in which an international organization takes on a role analogous to air traffic control. There are bottom-up plans, in which enlightened self-interest nourishes the growth of international norms. There are calls for transparency, for codes of conduct, for rules of the road, for best practices, for de-orbiting, for debris mitigation, and for prohibitions on harmful interference, testing destructive technologies, and weapons in space.

Above all, there are calls for sharing information, about locations current and projected of objects in orbit, and about launches, anomalies, loss of control, close approaches, conjunctions, and planned maneuvers. Space will be safer for all, some argue, when everyone knows where everything is and what everyone else is doing.

Most of these proposals offer scant basis for serious negotiation, primarily because they are too sweeping; their generality obscures important situational differences. Avoiding collisions is not the same problem for geosynchronous satellites as it is for those in low earth orbit. Transparency must be constrained by the secrecy needed for national security and technological competitiveness. Agreements to behave responsibly may affect only responsible actors if bad behavior is not detectable. And no agreement can preclude engineering mistakes and environmental mishaps from causing explosions in space.

Nor can all space users use all information about what is where, why it is there, and when it will be somewhere else. Civil and commercial operators need information to avoid collisions: timely warning of a close conjunction. National security operators need information to defend space capabilities and threaten those of others: situational awareness and more. And if international agreements are executed, there will be need for a third type of information to monitor compliance. And so to the biggest situational difference of all: there is only one source of reliable, actionable information for all orbital regimes and sectors—the U.S. Air Force.

Other countries depend on surveillance and tracking networks that are much more limited. The French system, for example, tracks some 18 satellites and extends only to 1000 kilometers; China’s is under development and kept secret; Russia’s seems adequate for its launch operations but probably has difficulty providing broader coverage and finer precision (and evidently was not monitoring its own derelicts). Most commercial operators know where their own satellites are, and some have begun considering how they might exchange such information when needed, but they have no capability systematically to detect and track other objects.

But the US cannot track and model all space objects all the time, and it needs new systems to provide more comprehensive, timely, and accurate situational awareness for its national security missions. The new space-based space surveillance satellite scheduled for launch in April should help considerably, and more resources are on request. Even with these new assets in hand, the Air Force will still be short of what would be needed to provide actionable conjunction analysis and warning routinely for commercial and foreign entities (adjectives that are redundant for the big geosynchronous satellite businesses). The space catalogue is too large, accuracies too gross, astrodynamic models too imperfect, and encounters too speedy. Continuous support requires a lot of resources, the priority claims on which are and must be human spaceflight and national security satellites.

Are we thus doomed to sententious conferencing until American taxpayers decide they will underwrite world safety in space? Not at all. The path to cooperative work to keep space green and sustainable is to follow Marx (or the apostles): from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. The Air Force can produce information but lacks resources; commercial operators need information and have money. Once the non-trivial security concerns are arranged, there should be little difficulty in creating “pay to play” contractual arrangements. International agreements about practices and behaviors could easily follow suit by focusing negotiations on topics that the Air Force could agree to monitor publicly and simultaneously allocating donations to an international fund to be used to defray Air Force expenses.

What better way to embody the cooperative spirit so appropriate to our heavenly global commons?

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