Sorting Out Space Debris

Earlier this year, there was a great deal of public attention on the potential collision of two dormant objects – one an old NASA telescope, the other a former Air Force satellite. Moving 9.1 miles per second, the two barely missed each other – which was a relief. But as Director of the Office of Space Commerce Kevin O’Connell noted, this dramatic occurrence was one of five similar events just that day.

These events highlight three vital parts of today’s space environment:

  • The orbits around Earth are littered with debris, much of it not fully understood or catalogued;
  • Growing commercial space activity will only increase the number of objects in these orbits. That will in turn increase the risk of collisions and the importance of rules of the road to prevent them; 
  • And, as space becomes more important to our Earth-based economy and national security, the effects of a collision could be extensive and far more widespread than the loss of one or two satellites.

At the same time, U.S. companies are leading the creation of new markets in space, such as satellite servicing. In fact, over 22,000 miles above the Earth, the first commercial satellite servicing vehicle has attached to a decommissioned satellite to bring it back into commercial operation.

Unfortunately, the federal regulatory framework is not conducive to speedy approval. It can also undermine our competitiveness with companies in other countries vying for these new markets. Given these factors, there is a clear need to settle the framework governing the monitoring, information sharing, and rules of the road for space objects and activities.

AIA urges Congress to act now to delegate responsibilities for in-space mission authority, space situational awareness, and space traffic management to a civil executive branch department. The delegation of responsibilities needs to be clearly defined and accompanied by the resources required to carry out these critical duties. Continued uncertainty will only increase the risk to U.S. economic and national security and hinder continued U.S. industry leadership in the space economy. We avoided a problem in January. But ignoring the need for action will only put us on a collision course – one that will impact America’s economy, security, and leadership in the growing space sector.