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Space Traffic Control
by Staff Writers for Launchspace
Bethesda, MD (SPX) May 15, 2018

illustration only

Space traffic control is coming. The Department of Commerce has accepted the challenge to create an appropriate policy portfolio that will ultimately lead to regulations on how to fly your satellite in the Earth's vicinity.

This challenge is daunting. Unlike air traffic control which requires aircraft to respond to ATC commands is simple 3-dimensional space over the Earth's surface, between the ground and 60,000 feet altitude, space traffic control must deal with 3-dimensional curved space in which all objects in low orbits are each travelling at speeds in excess of 16,000 MPH and moving in all directions.

Not even one-hundredth of one percent of low orbiting objects are controlled. Thanks to the laws of orbital mechanics, there is only one way to avoid collisions and that is to fly each satellite at its own distinct altitude.

If we could go back to 1957 and begin the Space Age with an established set of space traffic rules, every satellite would be assigned a specific altitude in which to fly.

All satellites would have to maintain circular orbits with strict tolerances on altitude variations. At the end of life, every satellite would be immediately de-orbited to make room for replacement satellites. And, no debris could be allowed without serious penalties being imposed on the offending satellite operator.

Unfortunately, we are 60 years too late for this idyllic scenario. Forthcoming space traffic control regulations, by necessity, may have to be draconian in nature. A quick look at the chaotic makeup of current space traffic in low orbits should be terrifying to government policy makers and regulators. There are an estimated 30,000 objects in near-Earth space that are larger than 4 inches.

Not one of these was launched with any traffic management considerations in mind. Add to this population billions of small debris objects, all travelling in the same space. Finally, consider that only a few hundreds of these orbiting objects are even controllable and imagine you are in charge of space traffic.

In summary, one must ask: "Who would want to be a Space Traffic Controller?"

Related Links
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

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Space smash: simulating when satellites collide
Paris (ESA) Apr 25, 2018
Satellites orbiting Earth are moving at many kilometres per second - so what happens when their paths cross? Satellite collisions are rare, and their consequences poorly understood, so a new project seeks to simulate them, for better forecasting of future space debris. Only four such collisions have taken place in the history of spaceflight so far - the majority of space debris stems from explosions of leftover propellant tanks or batteries - but they are projected to grow more common. "We w ... read more

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