Finally Taking Major Steps to Rein in Space Debris

When Intelsat became a founding member of the Space Data Association (SDA) 10 years ago, we and other leading satellite operators were perhaps a bit naïve in thinking that by working together, we could have a major impact on the accumulation of orbital space debris. Indeed, progress has been slower than any of us had hoped, but we are pleased to see more government regulators around the globe taking a greater interest in the increasing threat to space operations posed by the accumulation of orbital debris.

The European Space Agency estimates that 60-plus years of space flight has left more than 34,000 objects greater than 10 centimeters in orbit, each one of them moving at around six miles per second. One small bit of these old satellites would destroy anything it hits in space.

With awareness of the orbital debris danger growing, hopefully a new global traffic cop for space can be identified.

The situation is predicted to get even worse in the next few years, as new constellations of hundreds of satellites are launched into low and medium-earth orbits. These satellites won’t have the resiliency and long service life of geosynchronous (GEO) satellites such as those operated by Intelsat and will further contribute to space debris as they pass out of service and break up in space.

The government is well aware of the increased danger these new constellations pose. Here’s how the FCC phrased it in a proceeding document focused on orbital debris:

“Proposed deployments of large satellite constellations in the intensely used LEO region, along with other satellites deployed in the LEO region, will have the potential to increase the risk of debris-generating events. New satellite and deployment technologies currently in use and under development also may increase the number of potential debris-generating events, in the absence of improved debris mitigation practices.”

Major satellite operators formed the SDA in order to share information about known objects in space and to create a database that all operators could use for space situational awareness (SSA) to avoid collisions. Despite our best efforts, there is still no central global authority for tracking debris in space to prevent possible collisions. The number of organizations involved globally is too long to list here. Currently the two most important players involved are the U.S. government’s Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) and the SDA.

The CSpOC is the organization within the DoD with responsibility for ensuring SSA for government satellites. Formerly known as the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), it is located at Vandenberg Air Force base in California. But SSA is only one of the functions of the CSpOC. It also is responsible for early missile warning; optimization and restoration of military satellite communications; theater battlespace awareness using overhead persistent infrared; theater support; and space defense.

Through the JSpOC and now the CSpOC, the U.S. Air Force has done an outstanding job supporting most global space-faring nations, global commercial operators, industry and academia. It also should be commended for including commercial operators, embedding them via the Commercial Integration Cell (CIC). All that said, the Air Force’s mission is national defense, not being the world’s traffic cop in space. SSA is not the core function of the CSpOC, and 90 percent of the SSA warnings issued apply to commercial or international satellites rather than military.

The FCC is nearing completion of the orbital debris proceeding. Coming out of this review process, it is expected that the SSA function currently being served by CSpOC will transition into a civilian agency, possibly the FAA or the Commerce Department.

If the government decides to move the SSA function from CSpOC to a non-military authority, we hope the transition is made in a way that enhances capabilities and retains a free service open to all operators who agree to share their SSA data. A good way to accomplish this would be for a commercial agency to write technical requirements and issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a technical solution to replace CSpOC.

The government can rely on commercial space capabilities to help solve current spaceflight safety and SSA. The accelerating challenges of data collection, exploitation and dissemination requirements far outpace the ability of government acquisition processes to keep up. Additionally, the success of the CIC and the SDA show the efficacy of government/private sector cooperation for better space safety.

Skot Butler
Download Adjacent Satellite Interference in Mobile/VSAT Environments document

The U.S. has been a global leader in the area of space safety, even though it’s responsible for only an estimated 33 percent of the significant assets in space. The CSpOC transition will be a positive step that acknowledges space safety as more than just a military function. But it obviously isn’t a global solution. Each country has its own equivalent to the FCC, and a global solution will require participation from every country.

Finding a global solution will be a long process, requiring participation of all major space players including Russia and China. Working through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency within the UN, might be a possibility. The ITU is responsible for the global management of RF spectrum in space and could be used as a platform for developing SSA best practices for improved orbital safety.

With awareness of the orbital debris danger growing, hopefully a new global traffic cop for space can be identified. Whatever entity governments decide on for this role, we hope the end result is the same as the CSpOC transition – a service free to every country, leveraging the latest commercial technology to improve space safety.