The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands more satellites could soon be launched into space. Can the federal government keep up?

(Daniel Hertzberg for The Washington Post)
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In a bold move two years ago, the White House issued a directive that would make the Commerce Department a traffic cop in space, giving it the authority to establish rules of the road for the rapidly growing number of satellites in orbit in hopes that it will prevent collisions that destroy millions of dollars’ worth of hardware and leave behind dangerous clouds of debris.

In a speech, Vice President Pence hailed the effort, saying “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.”

But since then, the directive, known as Space Policy Directive-3, has gone nowhere, mired in a Washington bureaucratic battle over which agency would be best suited for the mission. The Trump administration argues that the Commerce Department is best placed to foster the growing commercial space industry — including satellite servicing, manufacturing, space tourism and more — while taking advantage of new technology to track items in orbit.

Some members of Congress think, however, that the responsibility should go to the Federal Aviation Administration instead, extending that agency’s jurisdiction from the skies to space.

The impasse has left the Pentagon with tracking space debris and satellites as well as warning governments and private companies around the world of potential collisions, as it has done for years. It’s a job it doesn’t want — and that the White House doesn’t want it to have.

It’s not clear when, or if, the logjam will break.

A spokesman for the National Space Council said fully funding the Office of Space Commerce “remains a top priority” to “address the emerging growth of large constellations in low Earth orbit and lay the foundation for management of future space traffic.”

Others are less optimistic that such an office will be established.

“The odds of getting legislation introduced this year, in an election year, on a topic of low political priority, were slim to begin with,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank. “And then we had a pandemic.”

As the debate drags on, the number of satellites being launched to orbit continues to grow dramatically, raising the possibility of more collisions and more debris that in turn would threaten other satellites that are used for missile warnings, GPS, television, communications and more.

At least four companies are moving ahead with plans to put up constellations of thousands of satellites that would beam the Internet to the estimated 4 billion people without access to broadband. Over the next 10 years, more than 50,000 satellites could be launched into orbit, up from the few thousand currently in operation today, according to Analytical Graphics Inc., or AGI, a company based outside Philadelphia that builds software to track spacecraft and debris in space. That’s in addition to the junk floating around there. The Pentagon tracks about 22,000 pieces of debris larger than about four inches, but scientists say there are nearly 1 million larger than half an inch.

AGI estimates that over the next 10 years, there could be as many as 404 collisions and 17 million close calls in the most congested orbits. Tracking all those objects and issuing warnings is too much for the Pentagon to handle — and outside its primary task of defending the nation. A civilian agency could be more adept in keeping up with the demand and better at communicating with private companies as well as foreign governments, some experts believe, though the Pentagon would continue to monitor space activity.

“It’s easier for the Department of Commerce to leverage commercial or other modern technology than it is for the Pentagon,” Weeden said. He called the Pentagon’s current tracking system “antiquated.”

“It was a great system 30 years ago, and it did the job it was designed to do,” Paul Graziani, AGI’s CEO, said in an interview. “However, the problem has moved on over the decades to be a much more difficult problem than the system was designed to handle.”

SpaceX has won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to put 12,000 small satellites into orbit as part of its Starlink Internet constellation. Already it has launched 540, making it one of the largest satellite operators in the world, officials said, with more satellites in space than even China.

Companies currently need to demonstrate that their individual satellites won’t cause collisions to win FCC approval, Weeden said, but some experts want additional regulations that would extend to the constellations as a whole.

Amazon, meanwhile, also has plans to deploy a large constellation as part of a program it calls Kuiper. The FCC on Thursday approved Amazon’s plan to put up 3,236 satellites, and the company said it would invest $10 billion in the effort. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“A project of this scale requires significant effort and resources, and, due to the nature of LEO constellations, it is not the kind of initiative that can start small,” Amazon said in a statement. "You have to commit.”

Another company, OneWeb, intends to launch hundreds of satellites for broadband service, despite a bankruptcy filing that led to its acquisition by the British government and an Indian company.

With all that activity, analysts say the U.S. government needs to move fast if it is going to be able to keep up and establish policies for the rest of the world to follow.

“A collision between two satellites could have a catastrophic impact on the space environment for centuries to come,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said recently.

In April, the FCC, which over the past year has approved some 13,000 new satellites for launch, updated its rules governing orbital debris for the first time since 2004. Satellite applicants must now provide numerical values for the risk of collision and demonstrate how their satellites will be disposed of at the end of their missions, as well as make upgrades to design that would help avoid collisions.

While the rule updates are a good step forward, “there is still more we need to do,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in April. The commission considered tightening a rule that allows a satellite to stay in orbit for up to 25 years after its mission ends, a time frame that many think is far too long. But ultimately, the commission did not make any changes.

“This rule simply does not make sense in today’s orbital environment,” Rosenworcel said.

Debris begets more debris, and collisions, officials say, are inevitable and can inflict serious damage. In orbit, objects travel at immense speed — the International Space Station, for example, whizzes around Earth at 17,500 mph. So even something the size of a peanut can do tremendous harm.

Though outfitted with material intended to protect against debris strikes, the space station from time to time has had to maneuver to avoid getting hit. There even have been a few close calls in which ground controllers didn’t have time to move the station out of the way. In those cases, the astronauts had to evacuate the station and seek refuge in a docked spacecraft in case a collision caused the station to depressurize.

In one of the most congested areas, about 430 to 560 miles high, “there is enough human-generated orbital debris … to create more debris even if no new satellites were launched,” Weeden told a congressional committee this year.

Catastrophic collisions could occur between every five to seven years, he said.

The first-ever satellite crash happened in 2009, when a dead Russian satellite collided with a communications satellite operated by Iridium, creating almost 2,000 pieces of debris at least four inches in diameter and thousands more smaller pieces. Much of the debris will remain in orbit for years to come, each a threat to other spacecraft.

This year, two dead satellites nearly collided. If they had, it would have created yet another field of debris that could have threatened other satellites. And with more satellites being launched, the chance of more close calls and collisions will only rise.

“We’re going to see an even steeper exponential growth in the number of close calls,” said Todd Harrison, an aerospace analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We cannot afford to have more collisions because it produces long-lasting debris that ultimately could limit our ability to use this part of space. It could have far-reaching economic consequences as well as strategic consequences if we screw up that area of space we use for security.”

One of the reasons the Trump administration moved so aggressively to form the Space Force, the newest branch of the military, was to defend U.S. assets in space, which are used for reconnaissance, guiding precision munitions and communications. But the Space Force doesn’t want to be in the business of warning companies and governments every time one of their satellites comes uncomfortably close to another.

“They don’t want to be in the business of doing warnings for everyone on the world,” Harrison said. “That’s not a military function.”

To transfer that authority to the Commerce Department, as the Trump administration called for two years ago, Congress would have to allocate funds and give the agency the authorization to do so.

SpaceX, however, is moving quickly and says it could begin offering Internet service from its Starlink constellation in the United States in Canada this year, while “rapidly expanding to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021."

In a discussion with reporters late last year, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said that Starlink will be able to serve remote areas that fiber hasn’t reached.

“Does anyone like their Internet?” she said. “Anyone? Anyone? Nope. Anybody paying less than like 80 bucks a month for crappy … service? No. Okay, there we go. That’s why we’re going to be successful.”

The company has said that it has taken steps to ensure its new satellites won’t exacerbate the debris problem. The satellites are outfitted with thrusters and can “autonomously perform maneuvers to avoid collisions with space debris and other spacecraft,” the company said. “This capability reduces human error, allowing for a more reliable approach to collision avoidance.”

At the end of their lives, the satellites would take themselves out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere. And if those propulsion systems don’t work, they’ll automatically fall out of orbit within one to five years, the company said, significantly faster than the 25 years allowed now.