Over the next 5 years, hundreds if not thousands of small satellites will be placed into orbit, increasing the population of active satellites by a factor of ten. New on-orbit services will also increase the number of manoeuvring space objects, adding additional complications. Yet, our ability to measure and predict space object motion and behaviour is in many instances, poor. The largest available space catalogue of space objects, while having ~23000 of them, is far from tracking all of the objects hypothesized to exist.
One reason we don’t track more is because every single space object is represented and modelled as a uniform sphere - with no exceptions. This is a known bias and limitation. Yet on our roads, we license large trucks very differently than we do Vespa scooters; in the maritime domain, we regulate oil tankers quite differently than kayaks and canoes so why would we treat satellites all the same?
What we are in desperate need of is a scientifically and empirically informed taxonomy (read classification scheme) for man-made space objects whereby we can assign to this taxonomy risk factors. These will naturally be specie-dependent and habitat (orbital regime) dependent. Satellite capability and manoeuvrability will likely be classification parameters that make sense. The key to any parameters chosen is that they MUST be quantifiable and measurable (thus verifiable and predictable). With a rigorous scientific study we can even ascribe patterns of behaviour for each class/specie of space object and even which data are most optimal for observing and keeping “custody” of them. We must strive to achieve Unique Space Object Identification (USOI). Once we can achieve the above, we can begin to get insight into what the risks really are, how best to both regulate space traffic and underwrite insurance along with it.
At present, the commercial opportunities that mega-constellations offer seem to be overriding safety concerns. States certainly need to take this problem seriously, bearing in mind their responsibilities for underwriting commercial activities under the Outer Space Treaty. However, it will require a concerted effort by the whole community – government, commercial and scientific – if we are to improve Space Situational Awareness and move towards an effective system for space traffic management.
This workshop will provide an opportunity to bring together UK experts from across government, the commercial space sector, insurance and legal professions to discuss Space Situational Awareness and how the UK could help improve the international SSA picture and better manage national risks.
Dr Moriba Jah, Director, ASTRIA, Associate Professor, Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics Department, University of Texas at Austin