CISSM sponsors workshop on orbital debris

November 21, 2016

The University of Maryland’s Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research (CODER), brought satellite operators, scientists, academics and government officials from around the world together from November 15 to 17, 2016 at the second biennial CODER Workshop on Orbital Debris to elucidate the current state of efforts to lower the risks from orbital debris these issues so that progress can be made toward ensuring safety of space operations. CISSM cosponsored the workshop, and CISSM researchers, Nancy Gallagher and Theresa Hitchens, addressed the policy-related sessions.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), in his opening keynote address, noted a 2013 study by the International Debris Coordination Committee that showed an increase in catastrophic collisions in space because of debris from five to nine annually even if no new satellites were launched. Bridenstine summed up by saying that in the absence of regulation to mitigate and remediate debris, as well as international norm setting, the costs to satellite operators will continue to rise. 

Discussions centered on the landscape of sub-problems that make up the space debris situation, including:

  1. Quantifying and characterizing the debris environment. While governments and industry are working on tools and methodologies to improve detection, tracking and characterization of orbital debris, measurements and modeling (including orbital propagation models) remain inadequate. While the U.S. Air Force’s Space Fence radar system, which will be deployed soon, will improve detection and tracking in LEO, it may also exacerbate the problem of false collision warnings because modeling of the environment remains an imprecise art. Several commercial companies are stepping into the arena to provide tailored space situational awareness (SSA, the ability to see and understand the space environment) solutions to operators, although currently these efforts are focused on the “prime real estate” of space: Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) where most communications and broadcast satellites reside. Some progress is being made in improving modeling of the space environment, including the effects of space weather on satellites and debris. The U.S. military’s Space Surveillance Network is being improved with the addition of sensors and through upgrades to the software in order to allow the network to integrate data provided by commercial satellite operators and U.S. allies. A number of universities around the world are also working on the problems. Indeed, in an effort to help fill gaps in orbital observation and modeling capabilities, CODER and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) are working on a project to develop methodologies to create a crowd-sourced catalog of space objects, with a focus on the difficult task of detecting and tracking objects in LEO.

  2. While there is growing consensus on the eventual need to actively intervene to remove debris from orbit, scientists do not agree on which debris populations should be targeted. Presenters at the CODER2016 Workshop discussed whether efforts should be concentrated on removing very small debris, or instead targeted at large pieces--such as inoperable satellites and spent rocket bodies. While there are technologies being studied to remove various types of debris, nothing has yet been fully demonstrated or validated. This is in part because the business case for such undertakings has yet to be made, due in part to the costs to operators involved--but also because of legal and political challenges, including liability, that remain unresolved.

  3. Political challenges at the domestic level in the United States include the lack of a single government agency responsible for protecting the space environment. While the United States, like several other countries, has a system of regulation and licensing for space operators that includes requirements to mitigate space debris, the authority for doing so is spread among NASA, the Department of Defense, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Authority--each of which in turn is authorized by a different congressional committee. At the international level, while there are efforts at the United Nations to set norms of behavior and establish best practices--including the on-going negotiations at the Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on voluntary guidelines to ensure the long-term sustainability of space--progress has been slow. For example, the COPUOS in 2007 adopted a set of guidelines on debris mitigation that included measures to safely dispose of satellites at the end of life. However, according to an annual European Union study, compliance with these guidelines hovers between 45% and 60% (depending on the orbit being discussed), whereas to be fully effective a compliance rate of at least 90% is required.

Despite the difficulties, participants at the CODER2016 Workshop were optimistic that progress is being made because the awareness of the criticality of protecting the space environment is growing amongst operators, scientists and government officials. Much work remains to be done, and conferences and fora, such as the CODER2016 Workshop, that allow holistic discussion and collaboration remain vital in furthering that awareness.