Orbital Traffic Management Study - Final Report

Author data: 
Multiple authors
Publication Date: 
November 2016
SAIC report for NASA
The Reconsidering the Rules for Space Project
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

As stated in Section 109 of Public Law (Pub.L.) No. 114-90, “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.”:

“It is the sense of the Congress that an improved framework may be necessary for space traffic management of United States Government (USG) assets and United States private sector assets in outer space and orbital debris mitigation.”

Further, that law provides direction to make “recommendations related to the appropriate framework for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public and economic vitality of the space industry.”

Directed assessments of relevant policy, regulations, international considerations, technology, and operations topics have been conducted. These assessments provided the foundation for developing, evaluating, and recommending alternate frameworks for the management of space traffic and orbital activities.

Orbiting spacecraft and the space environment in which those spacecraft operate are critically important. In this decade, a new focus has been appropriately made on the defense and protection of spacecraft to ensure the continued flow of information to and from space. Just as there is risk to spacecraft that must be mitigated through defense and protection, there is risk to spacecraft because of the possibility of unintended collisions and physical interference from space objects in intersecting orbits. The likelihood of such events is low, but the consequences can be high, especially in cases involving crewed spacecraft.

Therefore, it is in the U.S. national strategic and economic interests to have an improved domestic space traffic safety governance framework (Framework) that specifically aims to mitigate and reduce the risk of possible space traffic safety incidents, while at the same protect the economic vitality of the space industry. Likewise it is important to enable the Department of Defense (DOD) to focus on its space protection and defense mission operationally, and allow its technical support systems to evolve based on protection and defense-centric requirements.

The current Framework does not provide a holistic approach by leading in the combined development of technically informed “rules of the road” and the provision of value-driven, safety-based products and services used during spacecraft operations. Such “rules of the road”, based on space traffic safety concerns, could lead to the maturation of international norms of behavior, which would greatly enhance the strategic stability of the space domain.

Objectives for any space traffic safety governance framework were created by the study team that focus on mitigating space traffic safety–related risks, protecting and enhancing national security interests, and ensuring the economic vitality of the space domain and industry. Five Frameworks were created for consideration. Each Framework exists at a distinct point on a continuous spectrum of space traffic safety governance options in which the USG’s prescriptive role ranges from low to high. The specific possible USG roles for consideration were the following:

• Developing and enforcing space traffic safety–related data sharing policies, best practices, guidelines, standards, and rules and regulations
• Providing space traffic safety products and services to private and foreign space operators
• Selecting, employing, and/or training space traffic safety SSA operators, certifying privates pacecraft operators, and developing operational processes and procedures

After review and assessment of a range of Framework options, conclusions and recommendations are provided as follows. A Framework that best balances the needs for safety, national security, and economic interest is a framework led by a civil agency. That civil agency will perform the following activities:

1. Facilitate privately led, technically informed development of codified best practices, guidelines, and standards. These documented processes include improved approaches to reduce the risk of space traffic safety incidents. These processes can inform future licensing requirements for payloads.

2. Provide advisory products and services that enhance operational safety, such as a public space catalog and conjunctions data messages. The agency should become the trusted open source of SSA data.

3. Provide leadership in technical and operations matters related to space traffic safety in international fora and develop data-sharing relationships with international owner-operators and partners.

4. Balance the needs of space traffic safety with the interests of space commerce and the space industrial base and, therefore, encourage, facilitate, and promote the uninterrupted and free flow of commerce in orbital space.

5. Use a business approach for providing SSA products and services in a manner that is most cost-effective, enables innovation to occur on commercial technology development timescales, and is consistent with the required data security policies needed for national security.

6. Interface appropriately with all interagency partners to ensure a whole USG approach to space traffic safety governance.

A civil agency should be provided with appropriate liability indemnification, and at this time it should not have authorities to dictate real-time operational decisions (e.g. mandating a collision avoidance maneuver). The civil agency will be required to develop strong interagency processes and procedures with other USG spacecraft owner-operators (i.e. Department of Defense [DOD], Intelligence Community [IC], and NASA). Strong consideration must be given to facility and personnel security requirements based on the requirements of these interagency interfaces.

This particular Framework is also the quickest and most affordable way to implement the civil-based options. It also offers the most flexibility by providing options to increase the role of the civil organization over time (and possibly transition to the more prescriptive Framework options) as is deemed appropriate.

This implies that reviews related to orbital debris mitigation are most appropriately conducted by this civil agency. This may require the transfer and/or consolidation of these activities from the agencies that are currently responsible for such reviews (FCC, FAA, NOAA) to this civil agency. Because the FCC will continue to license radio-frequency use, this will result in the need for most commercial space activities to obtain two authorizations—one for radio frequency use and another for the other safety-focused aspects of its space operations.

Implementation of this Framework would require legislative authorities to be granted and appropriate funding to be provided. A time of transition will be required to ensure that expected flows of products and services, currently provided by the DOD, are uninterrupted.

Read the full report.