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Event Recap

September 14, 2022

Outer space has reached a “tipping point” as activity outpaces space traffic management

By Aidan Poling

On September 14, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice hosted an event on “Space Traffic Management: Time for Action.” The discussion launched an issue brief on the same topic.

This event included opening remarks by Forward Defense Deputy Director Clementine Starling and Maxar Chief Technology Officer Walter Scott; a keynote address by Deputy Commander of US Space Command Lt Gen John E. Shaw, USSF, who characterized the transition from military- to civilian-led space traffic management (STM); and a panel discussion featuring Forward Defense Nonresident Senior Fellow Mir Sadat, Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology Mariel Borowitz, and Walter Scott.

The panel articulated the urgency of STM and the role both commercial and government entities can play in addressing the problem.

Why is now the time for action?

As several panelists emphasized, humanity is quickly reaching a “tipping point” in space. This tipping point will come with both tremendous benefits and new challenges. Lieutenant General Shaw observed that “if space in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s was the Arctic Ocean—rather sparse, traveled by rather few platforms, and many of them national security related—then the space of tomorrow is the Mediterranean: It is being crisscrossed by actors, and platforms, and capabilities of every conceivable kind.” The report notes that an exponential growth in satellites and space objects in orbit is underway with a projected increase from 4,800 to 25,000 satellites. Of course, the more objects in space, the greater the risk of collision between objects. Mitigating this danger is where STM comes into play.

What is space traffic management?  

Lieutenant General Shaw defined STM by breaking it into its two component parts: “space traffic” and “management.” He first characterized the “space traffic” component as those objects and electromagnetic spectrum entering, exiting, or moving over one hundred kilometers above sea level. He then noted that “management” encompasses not only space object tracking and collision warnings, but also the creation of “rules of the road” and behavioral norms. All panelists agreed with the General, stating that the creation of norms is central to achieving a functional STM system.

How is STM different from Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Domain Awareness (SDA)?

While often used interchangeably, STM, SSA, and SDA all have important differences. According to Borowitz, SSA is foundational to STM but more limited in scope as it encompasses the monitoring of space objects. SDA, while similar, is the more targeted tracking of space objects for national security purposes. Essentially, if SSA equates to air traffic control radar, SDA is equivalent to military early warning radar.

Moving from the Department of Defense to the Department of Commerce

Under Space Policy Directive-3, the Department of Defense (DoD) was instructed to shift its responsibility for STM to the Department of Commerce. This change was necessary, as highlighted by Lieutenant General Shaw, due to the changing nature of the space environment. The military infrastructure and systems that currently handle STM were originally designed to track a much smaller number of satellites while providing early warning against a nuclear first strike. Lieutenant General Shaw noted that fulfilling STM functions is becoming increasingly taxing to DoD resources that are otherwise needed to fulfill its original SDA mission set. With the Department of Commerce assuming authority over SSA and STM, DoD can now refocus on SDA.

Moreover, Borowitz observed that the switch will allow for the creation of a space traffic management system that, by its nature, is more open and responsive to commercial and international partners. However, all the panelists expressed the same concern: The Department of Commerce needs not just the authority, but also the resources, to adequately implement a new STM infrastructure.

The role of the private sector

All panelists agreed that the private sector will play a leading role in paving the way forward for space traffic management. Scott repeatedly emphasized that private-sector satellite companies are leading by example when it comes to creating norms and rules of behavior, highlighting Maxar’s longtime practice of sharing its orbit and maneuvering data with the DoD. Moreover, commercial companies can also contribute to STM by providing SSA data as a service, such as LeoLabs’ recently announced a data-sharing partnership with the Department of Commerce. Importantly, Scott pointed out that the creation of norms for STM should not be seen by industry as burdensome, given standardization reduces uncertainty and increases stability when it comes to operating space.

Working with international partners

Outer space is, by its nature, a shared environment that requires cooperation. As Sadat noted, “if people don’t get along in space, then nobody gets to benefit from space.” Unfortunately, the creation of international STM norms is stymied by the lack of clearly appropriate international forums for the purpose. Borowitz and Sadat argued that US engagement with likeminded allies and partners on a bilateral and multilateral basis would be valuable, as it could serve as the basis for larger international frameworks regarding responsible STM practices. 

Leading by example: Next steps in STM

Given the difficulty of establishing an international STM regime, the panelists agreed that the most concrete next steps would require the US government and industry to lead by example. A strong emphasis was placed on promoting transparency and data sharing. Sadat noted that different countries and companies often calculate the risk of conjunctions differently. Publicly sharing how the risk of a conjunction is calculated would help reduce tensions while simultaneously promoting STM as a global standard. Similarly, robust data sharing between governments and the private sector regarding planned orbits and maneuvers would help improve the accuracy of conjunction calculations.

You can re-watch “Space traffic management: Time for action” here. You can also read the issue brief here. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest on the trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.

Aidan Poling is a Young Global Professional for Forward Defense in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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