Looming ‘Wild West’ Scenario in Space Raises Tough Questions, Expert to Report

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An assistant professor of commercial space operations, Howard, along with 12 other Embry-Riddle faculty members and students, will participate in the TRB meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss topics ranging from space law, to equity issues in pedestrian safety and access, to unmanned aircraft systems and innovations in bridge construction.
Howard’s TRB session, scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 7, at 1:30 p.m. in the Washington Convention Center, will address “Growth in Small Launchers in the Commercial Space Industry.”
During an interview before her presentation, Howard noted that “a number of companies now have plans to use small launchers to establish constellations of small satellites in low-Earth orbit, which is already rather congested.”
Small launchers carry lighter payloads and require less power, making them an attractive option for the placement of satellites weighing less than about 1,300 pounds. Small satellites offer many benefits to society, but as they proliferate in space, they will generate additional space debris, increasing the risk of communications interference as well as collisions, possibly creating a “wild west situation,” Howard said.
The number of operational satellites in space has increased by 47 percent over the past five years, according to the Satellite Industries Association (SIA) 2017 annual report. Fifty-nine countries now operate satellites, the SIA has reported.
“We don’t yet have any rules of the road because there is no over-arching international authority that sets norms of behavior, much less tells space operators what to do when satellites get too close to each other,” Howard pointed out.
The U.S. Department of Defense provides information to help satellite operators avoid collisions. The Space Data Association also tracks satellites in orbit and notifies satellite operators of any risks. Yet, use of these services is not universal, Howard said, and increased space communications will also strain available communications bandwidth. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialized United Nations agency where stakeholder companies …

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