Pence Promises New Space Traffic Management Policy Soon

Pence Promises New Space Traffic Management Policy Soon

Vice President Mike Pence announced today that the National Space Council will soon present to the President a new policy on Space Traffic Management.  The need to manage the growing congestion in Earth orbit has been discussed for years.  Many expected the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would be assigned the task, but Pence revealed that it will be the Department of Commerce instead.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Space Symposium, Colorado Springs, CO, April 16, 2018. Screengrab

Pence chairs the National Space Council.  He offered an overview of the new policy, but no details except that Commerce will be tasked with providing Space Situational Awareness data to public and private space operators based on data in DOD’s space catalog.

In their simplest definitions, knowing where a space object is and, if it is maneuverable, where it is going, is Space Situational Awareness (SSA) while having authority to direct an agency or company to move a satellite is Space Traffic Management (STM).

DOD’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) is in charge of SSA today.  It tracks about 20,000 objects in Earth orbit, of which approximately 1,500 are functioning satellites and the rest are dead satellites or other space debris.  There are hundreds of thousands more pieces of space debris that are too small to track.

JSPoC issues warnings — conjunction analyses — to government and commercial satellite operators if objects are on a collision course, although it cannot compel any operator to move its satellite.  Such actions can have consequences.  Moving a satellite requires on-board fuel, which could shorten the satellite’s operational lifetime.  Or moving a satellite out of the way of one piece of debris could put in the path of another.

While rare, space objects have collided already, most famously in 2009 when the functioning U.S. Iridium 33 communications satellite and a defunct Russian military communications satellite, Cosmos 2251, smashed into each other creating thousands of pieces of debris.

DOD has indicated for some time that it would like to shift SSA responsibility for civil government and commercial operators to another government agency so JSPoC can focus on its primary mission of supporting military requirements.  During the Obama Administration, the recommendation was to assign it to the FAA, which already has responsibility for facilitating and regulating commercial space launches and reentries.

Pence said today that the Trump Administration has chosen the Department of Commerce instead.

President Trump knows that a stable and orderly space environment is critical to the strength of our economy and the resilience of our national security systems.  And that’s why the National Space Council has developed the first comprehensive space traffic management policy, which we will soon be sending to the President’s desk for his approval. 

This new policy directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense, so that our military leaders can focus on protecting and defending our national security assets in space. 

The policy will also encourage the commercial space industry to partner with the government to develop data-sharing systems, technical guidelines, and safety standards to apply domestically and be promoted internationally that will help minimize debris, avoid satellite collisions during launch and while in orbit.     —  Vice President Mike Pence,  April 16, 2018.

The Trump Administration is centralizing regulation of most commercial space activities at Commerce.  Secretary of  Commerce Wilbur Ross is already elevating NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce and Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs into his own office and will soon appoint a director.

No agency has responsibility for STM yet.  What Pence and the Space Council have in mind for that authority was not announced today.

Pence’s brief statement otherwise covered a lot of familiar ground.

He reiterated the Administration’s proposal to end direct support for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025 and thereafter rely on the commercial sector to operate low Earth orbit (LEO) facilities that NASA can lease instead of own: “where the government will be a tenant and a customer, not a landlord.”

Beyond that, “NASA will lead the way back to the Moon,” starting with the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) in lunar orbit which is included in NASA’s FY2019 budget request.  Once called the Deep Space Gateway, it will “provide a scientific outpost, supply center, and eventually a fuel depot, and will give our nation a strategic presence in the lunar domain.”  From that outpost, Americans “will return to the surface of the Moon to explore its surface and learn how to harness its resources to launch expeditions to Mars.”

National security space was another theme.  Noting the recently released National Space Strategy, Pence said that President Trump has directed DOD to strengthen the resilience of national security space systems “so America remains as dominant in space for security as we are here on Earth.”

The Space Foundation webcast the speech.  A transcript of Pence’s remarks is posted on the White House website.


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