DoD discusses taking steps to reduce collisions in space

Our editorial coverage on the GovSat Report over the past few weeks has been focused on the 2016 Hosted Payload and Small Sat Summit – and for good reason. This year’s Summit, which occurred in late October, featured an incredible lineup of speakers representing the federal government, military and private industry.

One of the key topics discussed during the conference was the increasing congestion in space, and the rising probability of collisions between spacecraft.

This was the focus of a panel discussion featuring Doug Loverro, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy at the Department of Defense (DoD).

Let’s take a deeper look at the cause and severity of the problem, as well as potential solutions.

Space debris populations seen from outside geosynchronous orbit (GEO). There are two primary debris fields: the ring of objects in GEO and the cloud of objects in low earth orbit(LEO)
Space debris populations seen from outside geosynchronous orbit (GEO). There are two primary debris fields: the ring of objects in GEO and the cloud of objects in low earth orbit(LEO).

More than before
Satellites are expensive, large and extremely costly to launch into space. This high cost has historically served as a high bar of entry, keeping many organizations from launching spacecraft. But the number of satellites in space is increasing, and that rate of growth could increase exponentially as new trends in the space industry converge.

With the emergence of new technologies, such as High Throughput Satellites (HTS), we’re seeing massive investment from commercial satellite operators, who are launching new HTS constellations that will drastically increase their capacity – allowing them to offer higher bandwidth and higher throughputs to their customers. However, the introduction of these new spacecraft – mostly at GEO – is adding to the number of satellites in that orbit.

The number of these launches last year and the total number of satellites in orbit was provided by Al Tadros of SSL and the Hosted Payload Alliance when he said, “In 2015…there were 65 commercial launches, which added to the 1500 satellites in operation…”

But GEO isn’t the only Earth orbit in fashion these days. There is a new generation of MEO satellite constellations offering high throughputs and insanely low latency to customers that is growing rapidly. LEO satellites are also increasingly common.

There are two factors and trends driving this boom in satellites:

  • First, launch is still cost prohibitive, but much less than it used to be. Experts even predict that launch costs will continue to decrease and launch windows will become increasingly available as new launch pads open across the country and as commercial space flight operators enter the marketplace.
  • Then there’s the cost of satellites. New advances in satellite construction, a new generation of smaller, accurate and inexpensive sensors and other advances is decreasing the overall cost of satellites. Together, these trends are driving a new wave of interest in satellites. They’ve led to increased satellite and space startup companies, and have even led to investment in space innovation from Silicon Valley.

According to one industry panelist at the Summit, “…there’s figures out there that indicate that there are 3,600 additional small satellites – at a minimum – that are going to be launched over the next ten years…a roughly 80 percent increase over the last eight years…”

But what does this mean? It means that space is more crowded than ever, and it’s only going to get even more crowded in the very near future. With this many spacecraft orbiting Earth, spacecraft collisions are becoming increasingly probable – an issue that will impact any organization with satellites in space.

Is it time to hit the panic button?
Although it’s true that the sheer number of satellites in space is already high and growing, the challenge does appear to mostly be in front of us. Much of the discussion about collisions in space were forward-looking, with experts discussing what is coming down the road.

As Mr. Loverro stated, “[Today,] the (International Space Station) needs to maneuver away from a collision once or twice a year – mostly just because of debris. But we’ve done calculations that show that – as these large constellations go into orbit and as they deorbit – those maneuvers could go from once or twice a year to once or twice a month – or once or twice a week.”

And the problem may be more about the perceived proximity of objects in space, and not the actual distance separating them. As Mr. Loverro noted:

“Quite frankly, it’s not because space is that crowded. It’s because of our ability to provide good insight into how close things are coming together, and our need to go ahead and create a large safety window around things like the ISS, national security satellites and expensive commercial satellites. We create a very big bubble around those satellites. And those big bubbles sweep out across far more area than the actual collision risk.”

With so little accurate situational awareness in space, it’s difficult for the military to know when something is truly at risk, or if they’re being overly cautious. With the cost of satellites so high, this leads to satellites, space stations and other spacecraft being moved unnecessarily because the parties involved simply can’t afford to take a chance. As Mr. Loverro noted, “It’s empty bubbles of uncertainty that are causing congestion today…”

However, it’s clear that actual congestion is going to be an issue that both the government and private industry will soon have to address.

Awareness, regulation and enforcement
As congestion in space increases, it’s going to fall to the federal government and military to work with the space industry to regulate what happens in space, and to enforce the regulations both domestically and internationally.

To help increase situational awareness, Mr. Loverro proposed a concept that should be very familiar to the aviation industry – devices such as transponders on satellites that effectively tell people on the ground where the satellites are. This is similar to what is found on planes today, and helps to reduce the reliance on sensing from the ground.

According to Mr. Loverro:

…it may take two to make that sensor problem work. It may not just be a radar that the government owns on the ground. It may be something that is on the satellite that gives us a better idea of where it is. Every air traffic item that’s flying out there has to have a transponder that’s beeping its own location. That’s so we can relieve some of the responsibility from the sensing side and provide more responsibility to the “I’m here” side of things. If we don’t deal with both sides, it’ll be difficult to shrink that bubble.

This year’s Hosted Payload and Small Sat Summit did an excellent job of illustrating the expanding interest and involvement in space. It also did a great job of highlighting the negative side of that increased interest – higher numbers of satellites, more congestion and an increased change of collisions in space. However, as experts at this year’s Summit suggested, the issue may lie as much with congestion as it does with a lack of situational awareness, and real issues may remain in the future. But it’s essential that government and industry work together to ensure that pricey spacecraft don’t start to have in-space accidents.

For additional information on hosted payloads and the ways in which they can help the federal government by increasing access to space and cutting costs, click on the following resources:

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