Can Space Traffic Control Handle The Volume Of Private Launches?

Jan 23, 2020
Originally published on January 23, 2020 7:01 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Tomorrow, SpaceX, the private company, is expected to launch 60-odd satellites into orbit to explore space. Private companies plan to launch hundreds of these satellites this year alone. It's part of a plan to provide Internet coverage to the entire world. But can our systems for directing space traffic actually handle that kind of volume? NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: When I started working on this story, I wanted to look at the idea of space traffic control - you know, like air traffic control except instead of planes, it's for spaceships. But I quickly learned that a lot of people in the satellite business don't like that term because it implies that somebody is in control, and that's definitely not the case, as I'll explain to you in a minute.

But first, let me explain the closest thing there is to space traffic control, the U.S. military's 18th Space Control Squadron.

DIANA MCKISSOCK: Currently we have a catalog of approximately 26,000 objects.

BRUMFIEL: Diana McKissock helps to oversee what the military calls space situational awareness. That's a fancy name for keeping track of everything up there that's bigger than about the size of a softball. We're talking chunks of old metal, rocket casings and working satellites - there are about 2,000 of those - and the military tracks it all with a global network of radars and telescopes. They take measurements and feed them into an old computer.

MCKISSOCK: It was first designed in 1983, but the version that we currently use was considered operational in 1996.

BRUMFIEL: Each day, the computer system spits out thousands of warnings about possible collisions between all of the stuff whizzing around Earth. Lately, the squadron has been put to the test. SpaceX has been launching satellites by the dozens as part of its Starlink project. A rival company called OneWeb plans to do something similar in coming months. And the men and women tracking it all have to keep up.

MCKISSOCK: It's motivating stress. I won't say it's easy, but I will say that I'm - you know, when faced with a challenge, it's amazing what innovation can come out of meeting that challenge.

BRUMFIEL: McKissock says that with cooperation from the companies, the squadron is able to track all the new satellites. But here's why this isn't space traffic control - once McKissock and the military have sifted through the possible collisions, they send out automated warning messages to the satellite owners, usually via email. And that's it.

MCKISSOCK: There is nothing in place after we send those messages to ensure that people are making decisions that benefit the entire space community.

BRUMFIEL: About six months ago, a SpaceX satellite and a European Space Agency satellite were predicted to have a close pass. SpaceX saw the initial email from the military and felt the two satellites would probably speed by each other at a safe distance. The problem, says Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, was that there was a second email.

BRIAN WEEDEN: There was a new email they got that had a much closer approach that somehow got trapped in a spam folder or just didn't make it to the right people. That was a problem.

BRUMFIEL: It seems kind of crazy to me that given these are satellites, they're worth a lot of money, you know, they're launching rockets - it's all very high-tech - that we're depending on email threads to sort out where they are.

WEEDEN: Well, I agree. That is crazy. But that's currently the status of things.

BRUMFIEL: SpaceX says it's fixed that problem. But Weeden says the real issue runs deeper. There are no standards for how close is too close or what satellite operators should do if they get a notice of a possible collision.

WEEDEN: It's up to each and every operator to decide for themselves what they want to do, if anything, in response to those close-approach warnings.

BRUMFIEL: SpaceX's new Starlink system is supposed to entail thousands of satellites. It says it's developing an automated collision avoidance system so they can move themselves out of the way. But that doesn't satisfy Moriba Jah, an expert in orbital mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. He says as many hundreds of new satellites go up this year, the companies can't just make decisions in a vacuum. They need to be coordinating.

MORIBA JAH: Each of them thinks of themselves to be quite smart, and we have the right people to, you know, maybe automate maneuvers or figure these things out. But that's done in the absence of the reasoning of the other people.

BRUMFIEL: Jah wants an international set of rules for when to move and how. But, he says...

JAH: We are so far away from something like that, my friend.

BRUMFIEL: In the U.S., at least, the Commerce Department might take a larger role soon. The Trump administration has tasked the agency with overseeing civilian space, but it is just getting started. Jah says the bureaucracy isn't keeping up with the speed at which satellites are being launched.

JAH: I think a major cataclysm of some form will happen in space that will have very long-term consequences.

BRUMFIEL: So you think there's going to be a collision?

JAH: Oh, yeah. Not just one.

BRUMFIEL: When satellites collide, they can create a cloud of shrapnel that can damage others around them. Jah says that shrapnel can stay in orbit for years, or even decades.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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