The U.S. Air Force is tasked with the federal government’s responsibility for space management, but officials suggest that another organization would be better suited to address increasing challenges.
According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, modeling done by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, a group of space agencies from around the world, found that incidents like a 2009 collision between a deactivated Russian military satellite and a commercial satellite will happen once every five to nine years if the launch rate remains constant. The problem is that the launch rate isn’t staying constant. Commercial companies are launching an increasing number of satellites into low-Earth orbit, exacerbating congestion and making collisions with military satellites more likely.
At a May 14 hearing held by the House Commerce committee’s subcommittee on aviation and space, Bridenstine and Air Force leaders shared their views on how to address the issue of debris and traffic in space.
“No one else in the world can track these objects, could do the calculations required to determine whether they were a threat to each other simply by their orbital motion,” said Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson, vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command, although he added that industry could be developing similar capabilities.
The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California maintains the catalog of space items using its Space Surveillance Network, a system of ground-based radars along with ground-based and orbital telescopes.
When the Air Force took over management of space traffic, it was a necessity at the time, Thompson said, but it may no longer be the best organization suited for the work.
“The Air Force took on the responsibility because it was the only organization in the world that could,” he said. “The Air Force is an armed service, it is not a regulatory agency, so I would say that we will do this job as long as the nation and the world requires but it is probably best suited for civil and other organizations."
One school of thought is that the Commerce Department will provide space situational awareness information for public use so that military officials can focus on national security matters. Bridenstine advocated for that in his testimony.
He argued that it’s possible that the Commerce Department could privatize space traffic management as space situational awareness and space traffic management technology becomes more advanced and common. If commercial organizations could provide the services necessary to track and detect objects in space in a way that allows satellites to avoid collisions, the department could be relegated to the relatively simple role of ensuring that commercial companies are subscribed to such a service instead of providing that service directly.
“Under all circumstances, it should not be the Department of Defense that does space situational awareness and space traffic management,” said Bridenstine. “That is a construct of the past and it certainly is not going to work in the future.”