Space Congestion Threatens to ‘Darken Skies’
In 2014, John Charles of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency coined the term the “darkening skies,” to highlight the emerging challenge to both national security and commercial interests by the proliferation of satellites, particularly in low-Earth orbit (LEO).
His prediction was that Earth observation satellites would become ubiquitous, presenting an array of potential threats to both mission and infrastructure. However, while those satellites have indeed increased rapidly, it is the mega-array communication satellite constellations which are likely to be the tipping point for this congestion.
Since 2014, there has been a nearly 90 percent increase in the number of satellites in orbit, to a current estimated 2,270. However, this is just the beginning. Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, will begin pilot flights of its proposed mega-constellation, Starlink, with the aim of ramping up to 12,000 satellites by the mid-2020s.
Another satellite company, OneWeb, is also planning a mega-constellation of its own, which will combine 1,980 satellites across both LEO and medium-Earth orbit, with 648 set to launch by the end of 2019. To facilitate this, they have stood up a new major manufacturing and assembly facility on Florida’s Space Coast. In addition to these, dozens of other companies are planning their own smaller, but still significant constellations for the next five to 10 years.
Stakeholders across the space enterprise need to cooperate to develop a holistic, whole-of-government approach to space, while increasing cooperation at the public-private sector nexus. In particular, the active tracking of space assets and orbital debris is critical for strategic planning and satellite resiliency. To this end, the U.S. government must work with the private sector to improve tracking, asset maneuverability and rapid replacement capability. These advancements will help mitigate collision risk and the potential loss of key national capabilities.
Recently, the current administration has taken crucial steps to this end. First, Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement at the 2018 National Space Symposium reflects a key initial acknowledgement of this need by the government. Realigning space traffic management — an inherently civil function — under the Department of Commerce is an important first step to establish a consistent, whole-of-government approach to space alongside civil, defense and intelligence agency partners, while also improving private sector engagement. The efforts outlined by the vice president have the potential to improve government responsiveness, improve broader situational awareness, and maintain U.S. leadership in space.
The primary driver of increasing orbital congestion, in addition to mega-constellations, is the rapid growth of small satellites and cube satellites. These satellites — some measuring only a few feet in each dimension — are increasingly used by startups, nontraditional space companies and research institutions due to their price tag, which can be as low as $100,000 to launch. In the coming years, as barriers to entry, particularly in launch, continue to decline, hundreds or even thousands of these satellites could go into orbit each year.
Complicating matters is the fact that the existing space regulatory scheme was designed for an era where only large entities were able to deploy and act in space. While organizations such as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs can track larger industrial and military satellites, they have so far been unable to do so for smaller operators.
Part of the challenge is that no dedicated space regulatory agency exists, either internationally or domestically. In the United States, for example, companies like SpaceX and OneWeb need to go through the Federal Communications Commission to receive bandwidth approval for their satellite constellations. At the same time, the technology to monitor satellites is either inadequate, or not designed for joint public and private use. For example, the Air Force’s Space Surveillance System was taken out of commission in 2013 due to budget cuts. The second generation of this system is set to come online by 2019, but even then, it is primarily designed for military use.
The risk — and potential economic cost — of an orbital collision is steep. The rapid increase in satellite assets raises the probability of the “Kessler syndrome,” a cascading wave of debris that destroys existing satellites throughout low-Earth orbit. This in turn, could render it nearly impossible to launch and maintain satellites for years to come. We have already seen the result of an intentional collision. In 2007, the Chinese military tested an anti-satellite weapon that created thousands of pieces of debris. An inadvertent collision, whether it is a cubesat or one component of a satellite constellation, may have even worse consequences.
The onus is on governments to set the rules for current and future satellites to help reduce the risk of space collisions. Some lawmakers proposed the creation of a unifying agency to monitor all space objects. In 2015, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., the new NASA administrator, stated, “there needs to be an agency with unambiguous authority that can compel somebody to maneuver.”
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Douglas Loverro suggested at the 2016 National Space Symposium that the Federal Aviation Administration, currently in charge of monitoring all domestic airline traffic, take the lead in monitoring space traffic. After the announcement of the planned transition of space traffic management from the Defense Department to Commerce, Loverro stated: “I would say that this represents true progress in moving this inherently civil function to a civil agency.”
"Reducing the dependence on space may also provide a solution for space congestion."
To start, governments could become more assertive about policy regarding satellite de-orbiting plans, especially for cubesat operators. Existing rules to de-orbit satellites are essentially voluntary; the current International Organization for Standardization guideline recommends a 25-year lifespan for each object. Given the proliferation of satellites, a shorter lifespan — especially for cubesats — may be more effective. The difficulty here will likely come in regulating these manufacturers. Cubesat builders, in the race to build and launch objects into space, have thus far eschewed satellite maintenance and decommissioning best practices. Besides pushback from the industry, forcing new regulations may dampen the economic potential of this technology.
Alongside policy reforms, government and industry should jointly work to help accelerate the miniaturization of all satellite components. So far, technological advancements have rapidly reduced the size of satellite microprocessors and cameras, while propulsion technology has not progressed at the same rate. This is important because unlike larger satellites, smaller satellites cannot carry the same liquid fueled thrusters to conduct orbital maneuvering or de-orbiting exercises.
New advancements in thruster technology, however, are on the horizon. Recently, Milan-based firm D-Orbit launched a cubesat with an independent thruster system. The small device will be tested in July to de-orbit the satellite back into the atmosphere. At the same time, other researchers, funded by NASA’s Microfluidic Electrospray Propulsion program, are creating advances in ion-based nano-propulsion. This technology would use electrically-charged ionic liquids to generate thrust. While the current power is relatively small, it may be enough to give microsatellites the ability to conduct regular orbital maneuvers.
Advances in space monitoring technology may also help in curbing the risk of space congestion. While the Pentagon has effectively taken the lead on monitoring objects in space, industry is also stepping into the fold. U.S.-based ExoAnalytic Solutions is using a network of 160 telescopes to monitor objects in space and selling that intelligence to satellite operators. In Europe, Space Insight and Deimos Sky, based in the United Kingdom and Spain respectively, are also using a combination of sensors and telescopes to monitor extraterrestrial objects.
Reducing the dependence on space may also provide a solution for space congestion. Both government and industry have become extremely dependent on satellites for imagery and communications. But alternative technologies, such as sub-orbital, high-flying assets, could fill in the gaps. Examples of this range from the high-altitude balloon startup World View Enterprises to the Defense Department’s RQ-4 Global Hawk. Future high-altitude, long-endurance drones may be able to do even more. Additionally, the advent of advanced multi-intelligence 3D imaging techniques may replace the need for satellite imagery in developed urban areas.
World View’s Voyager spacecraft
Despite this impressive array of technologies, the broader space industry is still relatively fragile. Now more than ever before, cooperation between the private and public sectors in space is critical for the U.S. space market. In this vein, the U.S. government should shift its role and utilize a clear strategic framework to take deliberate, repeatable, market enhancing investments — both financial, policy and otherwise — to support its national security goals and bolster the private sector. In the realm of space traffic management, the government should engage with leading startups in space situational awareness to improve capability and reduce cost to government.
In this effort, government leaders must realize that the space sector is not a monolith, and that different segments of the market require different regulatory and policy environments to survive and thrive. For example, the compliance burden on a commercial remote sensing company would need to be significantly less onerous than on an offensive space company, in order to reflect the truly commercial environment in which the remote sensing company competes. Continuing to treat the space sector as a monolithic business and operating model and assigning a singular regulatory and policy approach, is a path to a further erosion of U.S. leadership in space.
Finally, the government needs to develop a clear whole-of-government approach, inclusive of all relevant stakeholders, across civil, defense and intelligence organizations, empowered to make policy decisions to manage space traffic, maintain space situational awareness, and enable it to be flexible in the broader space sector.
The window for action to avoid serious disaster is quickly closing. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are more than 1,738 satellites orbiting Earth. This number will grow exponentially as more companies and countries launch their own space assets. While space is the ultimate public commons, the proliferation of objects — and a potential collision between them — could render it limited to only a handful of organizations. Rather than the sky being “darkened” by satellites, it may be rendered off limits to humanity because of debris.
Bill Beyer is principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and a federal practice space leader. Nicholas Nelson is a senior consultant at Deloitte.