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SmallSat Boom Outpacing Regulators in the US

By | April 8, 2016
      Planet Labs Doves CubeSat

      Close up of a Planet Labs Dove CubeSat. Photo: Planet Labs

      [Via Satellite 04-08-2016] U.S. regulators are grappling with how to ascribe the most appropriate policies for small satellites as their proliferation becomes more significant. Agency representatives and private sector executives, the latter of which have already orbited or plan to orbit hundreds of SmallSats, discussed ways to craft the best regulatory regime to preserve and protect the space environment at the Washington Space Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C April 7.

      Government officials admitted off the bat that they are currently playing catch-up with the commercial sector. U.S. startups, universities and other players have introduced swarms of SmallSats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) well ahead of a fully rounded out regulatory framework for all of their operations.

      “From the State Department perspective, we work on a daily basis to push forward possible norms of responsible behavior in space so we can work to catch up to the present space environment,” said Mallory Stewart, deputy assistant secretary for emerging security challenges and defense policy, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification & Compliance at the U.S. Department of State.

      George Nield, associate administrator of commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said the United States’ current regulatory framework was not designed to handle some of the “nontraditional” operations that have grown in popularity. Citing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which more than 100 countries have since ratified, Nield said signers of the treaty have agreed to authorize and supervise the activities of non-governmental entities from their countries in outer space. In the U.S., different agencies handle different aspects of this responsibility. The FAA handles launch and reentry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) covers radiocommunications, and NOAA addresses remote sensing. NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) are not regulatory agencies, and Nield said neither do they want to be, but some oversight of the commercial industry has fallen on their shoulders, particularly the DOD.

      Through the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), much of industry receives updates about collision risks between satellites and space debris. This, however, falls outside of JSpOC’s primary mission to serve U.S. military needs. Nield said the FAA is open to handling regulatory requirements for satellite operators, particularly of SmallSats, to both fill the void that no other agencies are in, and to address aspects of managing the space environment that fall outside the domain of agencies that are handling them today.

      “The FAA has expressed our willingness to take on responsibility for overseeing commercial activities in space that are not already regulated by the FCC or NOAA, should the White House and Congress decide that that would be appropriate,” he said. “The goal would be to enable those new nontraditional operations in space without creating a huge new regulatory burden that would make U.S. companies less competitive, or in the worse case, would actually drive them off shore in search of a more business-friendly regulatory environment.”

      Nield said there is much greater awareness of the “contested” and “congested” space environment today, but reminded that debates on some of these issues go back for several years now with limited tangible progress. In light of this, representatives of new commercial operators said they have borne the mantle of handling many of their affairs in space as their own responsibility.

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      “Early on we recognized that the regulatory environment has yet to catch up with the changing industry and the number of satellites that are being launched, so we recognized that we had to take it upon ourselves to be responsible operators and design into our system safeguards and make sure that we are not making it more difficult for other operators and ourselves,” said Mike Lindsay, fleet operations manager at OneWeb.

      Lindsay listed redundant GPS capabilities, propulsion systems for collision avoidance, and an intentionally shorter deorbit time than the accepted 25-year rule as steps OneWeb is taking in designing its constellation of roughly 650 satellites. He said the company is aiming for less than five years for disposal of satellites, and also intends to be transparent with data, having met with JSpOC a year ago to discuss the safe operation of its satellite program.

      Rich Leshner, director of government affairs at Planet Labs, said greater collaboration should be a priority so satellite operators are aware of each other’s activities, thus boosting Space Situational Awareness (SSA).

      “From the industry side we have our own reasons and our own desires to make sure the space environment is well maintained,” he explained. “We have a business model that depends on our assets being able to survive, and that is true whether you are in the business of large constellations, small constellations or only one-off satellites.”

      Paul Welsh, VP of business development at Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI), said there is incentive for operators to write the ground rules for operations in space, and that they can benefit by sharing information through organizations like the Space Data Association (SDA). He said industry could be “80 to 90 percent of the solution.” AGI is seeking to be part of that solution through its Commercial Space Operations Center (ComSpOC), which is on schedule to match JSpOC’s public catalog of space objects by the end of this year.

      An AGI video of Resident Space Objects (RSOs) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). 

      Stewart highlighted the importance of having a government role in forming national standards, however. She said this would be critically important for getting the international community to accept such standards.

      “I think the government’s role is crucial in trying to establish the international nature of these norms,” she said, cautioning that without international agreements, efforts to protect the space environment could mimic the “race to the bottom” seen in certain efforts to preserve the Earth’s natural environment. “It’s very hard to get to best practices when other nations are doing bad things, [and] we can’t get to norms when we are working on different definitions.”

      International collaboration will be essential, as the events that have caused the most space debris are the 2009 collision between Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Kosmos 2251 satellite, and a Chinese Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in 2007. Iridium now receives regular updates from JSpOC, as do multiple other operators, to prevent such accidents, and DOD even joined the SDA in 2014. But SSA collaboration among many of the world’s top space powers is weaker than would be preferred. The U.S., Russia and China are all leading nations in space, but are sometimes hesitant to work together for political reasons.

      “I think we need to have greater conversations with the major space players including Russia and China,” said Stewart. “The State Department leads a number — up to 15 — space security dialogues, and we are constantly looking to expand those dialogues.”

      Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of space programs for the office of the assistant secretary for acquisition at the DOD, said that JSpOC fields calls from around the world related to conjunction assessments and other SSA concerns on a daily basis. He said for tactical day-to-day operations, those conversations are occurring, but that additional work is clearly needed.

      “Most importantly, a large debris-generating event must absolutely be avoided,” added Welsh. “We really cannot even afford one more of those.”