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Space Traffic Management May Soon be Here
by Staff Writers
Bethesda MD (SPX) Sep 28, 2016

File image.

Over the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in low orbital activities. The government is increasingly concerned with the congestion within these orbits and the growing problem of orbital debris. In order to operate safely in near-Earth orbits, operators must know where their satellites are located, and whether any of these systems may approach other satellites or debris objects.

Today, there are well over 20,000 tracked objects including active satellites and large debris objects. Various agencies and private sector organizations do collect and disseminate space situation awareness data for operators who may be able to plan maneuvers that will mitigate collision threats.

Within the government, the Department of Defense currently collects space surveillance data and compiles it for space situational awareness and orbital safety. The Secretary of Transportation is working with the Department of Defense to develop a report on the feasibility of a civil agency processing and releasing this data and information. There is a good chance that such a responsibility will fall on FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The job of detecting, processing and disseminating data on several hundred low-orbiting systems is extremely challenging. Objects and spacecraft range in size from a few millimeters to a few meters. The total number of objects in low orbits is unknown, but experts agree that there are at least tens of thousands of individual pieces, subsystems and expired spacecraft that can cause extreme damage to an active satellite in the event of a collision.

We can only detect and track about 20,000 of the total number of objects. To further complicate the safety of orbital flight, almost all of these items are completely uncontrolled. All are travelling in independent orbits and every one of them is moving at over 7 km/sec.

Yes, space is BIG! However, as the number of objects increases, density increases and the relative size of space in the near-Earth region is getting smaller. In summary, collision risks are still probabilistically low, but the risk is real and growing. Space system operators remain convinced that the risk is manageable and they continue to do business as usual. Nevertheless, all operators are aware that the threat is slowly rising.

A minimum requirement for effective space traffic management is timely, accurate position data on all space objects in a controlled traffic region. Traditional two-line orbital element sets and processes that were used during the Cold War are not adequate for precision conjunction analysis. If debris avoidance is to be successful, real-time precise updates on position and movement of derelict objects are essential for safe flight in low-earth orbits.

Furthermore, future satellites that operate in this region will need quick-response maneuvering capabilities that most current space systems do not carry. Finally, in order to sustain a high level of space operations in low orbits, there must be a long-term program to relieve the number of debris objects through systematic removal.

There is, as yet, no such system and no viable options have been presented. It is critically important that we figure out how to control orbital debris. Otherwise, one day there may be no future space operations.

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