Regulating Traffic in the Final Frontier

October of last year was the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, the first spacecraft to be launched into orbit. Since then, we’ve come a long, long way. Think of all the stuff that’s floating around our planet right now: GPS, television, and military satellites, the International Space Station and the Hubble telescope, and a host of debris. With more satellites and projects launching into space, the issue of regulating all of this space traffic is starting to become an issue.

Current regulations of space come from a series of treaties and agreements between nations and organizations, starting with the Outer Space Treaty created 40 years ago. But with private companies like Virgin Galactic merging into space traffic, as well as nations like Japan, India, and China, launching satellites and scientific spacecraft, the need for a defined set of regulations is in order.

“While the current state can be regarded as a “piecemeal engineering”, space traffic management would provide a regulatory “big bang”. Space traffic management would not tackle single issues, but regard the regulation of space activities as a comprehensive concept. This concept is based on functionality, aiming at the provision of a complete set of rules of the road for the current and future way,” wrote Kai-Uwe Schrogl of the European Space Policy Institute in a paper titled “Space traffic management: The new comprehensive approach for regulating the use of outer space – Results from the 2006 IAA cosmic study,” published in the most recent issue of Acta Astronautica.

Space law would be concerned with four areas: keeping tabs on the current space traffic, a system of notification between nations or companies planning launches and missions to space, comprehensive rules for traffic to follow and a way to enforce these rules.

Tracking and notifying are both important to help keep spacecraft from crashing into each other, and would improve the performance of those satellites able to make avoidance maneuvers of space debris. The ISS and Hubble both do this on a regular basis, but other satellites lack the ability to change their orbit on a, so minimizing and tracking the amount of space debris – at least in certain high-traffic areas in Earth’s orbit – is instrumental.

The organizations and means of implementing these rules are still being debated. Possibilities include the creation of World Space Organization, or placing the responsibilities on the shoulders of the existing International Civil Aviation Organization, which currently regulates the skies closer to Earth.

Schrogl writes that a comprehensive space law is a ways off, but the debate about what rules are needed – and how to go about keeping the increasing number of parties launching into space in check – is currently picking up speed. This means that you shouldn’t expect to see any space police pulling over NASA’s Atlantis Shuttle for littering anytime soon.

Source: Acta Astronautica

3 Replies to “Regulating Traffic in the Final Frontier”

  1. Why do we kid our selves. Regulation will happen. Enforcement won’t. We can’t even control the amount of contamination on the surface our planet and we arrogantly think we can control the complex mess accumulating in space. Most of our accords and treaties are near worthless. However, I suppose we must keep trying. Hopefully then the world’s frivilous attempts at control will take on new meaning as crises emerge.

  2. I look at it this way – its going to be very difficult to track and then to attempt to enforce – but the alternative is flaming piles of what used to be spacecraft (and the people within them) as a result of collisions with discarded waste, junk, etc…

    I find it hard to believe that it has taken so long in the first place…the planning of a launch must already be bogged down with a large amount of calculations to try and determine the orbits of the more dangerous pieces of space-waste.

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