An open letter to Vice President Pence and the National Space Council on space traffic management

The development of “mega-constellations,” among other issues, is a reason to establish an agency whose primary responsibility is space traffic management. (credit: OneWeb)

The resurrection of the National Space Council (NSpC) offers a rare chance to take a fresh look at some of the most pressing issues facing the nation and the world. Its capacity to organize civilian, military, intelligence, and commercial space experts to work on problems of mutual interest is our country’s first opportunity of the 21st century to make a daring leap forward with a bold accomplishment that would be the Council’s enduring legacy—if the Council is willing to step firmly forward into the future. That step would be to create a federal office called the Federal Space Traffic Administration (FSTA).

The importance of orchestrating space traffic management (STM) across the diverging activities in space, currently confused by ownership and responsibilities, into one federal office with multiple missions would be timely and valuable. The United States could show its leadership by stepping out in a positive manner while inviting other international organizations to coordinate in parallel. Space traffic management issues cross over current and potential future responsibilities of many US government organizations.

Space traffic management must be carried out in a more organized 21st century approach. No one is currently responsible for the knowledge and safety of activities in space. The tasks that fall within this category should be coalesced within a single organization to deal with and organize national and international stakeholders. The parallels with international and national air traffic control, sprinkled with elements of maritime tradition, seem obvious. Effective management of space traffic will involve coordination with commercial, civil government, and military parties, both nationally and internationally, with safety as the principal thrust of all activities. Sub-missions could include:

Space situational awareness (SSA): SSA is currently led by the US Air Force with commercial and civil space moving into the SSA knowledge business for the safety of their own space systems. The future seems to demand a consolidated system that looks at all space items and determines where they are, what their orbital paths should be, and where there will be conjunctions between assets. Many US organizations are currently contributing to this operational space field, including the Air Force, FAA, and Departments of State and Commerce. The ability to rapidly update knowledge of all assets in space and real-time recognition of potential collisions needs to be focused within one office.

Safe operations within fields of orbital debris: The Air Force is currently tracking systems and debris in space with assistance from civil and commercial organizations. However, the mission is split with NASA potentially responsible for handling the removal of space debris (without a budget to accomplish that mission), FAA responsible for safety of commercial launch (no one is responsible for safety of orbital flight), and the Defense Department responsible for predicting conjunctions (potential collisions of space bodies). Despite the laudable work of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), coordination with our international partners could be improved. To operate safety in space after all the planned 13,103 new low Earth orbit (LEO) communications satellites are launched in the next several years will require more than leisurely discussions followed by inaction.

Assigning the mission to clean up LEO space (deorbit over 150 major rocket bodies and 100 dead satellites) to a defense organization would be the correct assignment. The Defense Department knows how to create and maintain a “safe environment” for operations. They have been maintaining a safe environment while coordinating globally to ensure that our civil, commercial, and military airplanes can fly anywhere around the world. This mission should be expanded to include making space (specifically starting with LEO) safe for both current and future operations. The Air Force should become the orbital debris removal organization, as part of a greater space traffic management team.

This calls for the creation of a new federal agency, the Federal Space Traffic Administration, responsible for managing the operational flights of US satellites and for coordinating with international equivalent organizations towards an analogous goal. This will be based upon the development of a space traffic management system, consolidation of space situational awareness within its own offices and within the Defense Department as parallel responsibilities, and assignment of safe orbital flights, including for debris removal, to the Air Force with coordination across international organizations.

The urgency of space traffic management

The urgency comes from the dramatic increase in trackable and untrackable objects in space that will occur within the next decade. There are about 1,400 functioning satellites in Earth orbit, sharing space with about 6,300 metric tons of orbital debris. About 800 of these working satellites are in LEO. Some of the altitude and inclination bands in LEO are becomingly perilously crowded with both functioning satellites and orbital debris. Most satellites in LEO are civil and military. However, commercial use of LEO (from 400 to 1,400 kilometers altitude) will grow drastically within a few years because private companies are planning to launch as many as 20,000 new commercial satellites, mostly into LEO.1

SpaceX alone (possibly under the trademark name of Starlink) plans in 2019 to begin launching a constellation of 4,425 low-latency high-capacity broadband satellites at around 1,200 kilometers altitude and proposes to launch another 7,500 satellites eventually at much lower altitudes.2 OneWeb intends to launch 720 such satellites at around 1,200 kilometers and another 1,280 satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO). Boeing plans to launch 2,956 satellites into LEO, Samsung 4,600 satellites, Telesat 290 satellites, and Theia Holdings 112 satellites. There are other companies with such plans as well.3

Several orbital bands in LEO between 600 and 1020 kilometers are already dangerously crowded with both working satellites and orbital debris (see Figure 1). The altitudes from 460 to 660 kilometers, while not yet so crowded, show a growth in tracked objects. Note also that Figure 1 only indicates the mass and number of tracked objects.4 However, the largest number of debris objects are not tracked because they are too small to be spotted by heritage tracking systems, which typically track objects larger than 10 centimeter.

Figure 1. Number of tracked objects in LEO (larger than 10 cm in diameter) and their total mass as a function of altitude. Image credit: Darren McKnight and Patrick Dingman (2012).

There are an estimated 700,000 untracked debris objects from 1 to 10 centimeters across in Earth orbit—dangerous to spacecraft and people, but which cannot practically be shielded against. Yet even shrapnel one centimeters across (size of a playing marble), with relative impact velocities in LEO approaching 56,000 kilometers per hour, can completely disable a multi-ton satellite, damage the ISS, or kill humans carrying out extravehicular activities. A 100-gram bolt striking the ISS crew chamber would certainly be a lethal event.5

Because these smaller objects are produced when larger spacecraft or debris breaks up or suffer from collisions, the altitudes in Figure 1 that show the highest mass represent the altitudes that will produce the greatest amount of future debris. Without active intervention, these masses will produce more orbital shrapnel even if we never launch another spacecraft. Without active STM, the 20,000 or more new satellites will make the current orbital debris and satellite situation much more dangerous and complicated. It is therefore urgent that modern societies worldwide plan for STM, much like human societies did when airplanes began to proliferate.

SpaceX, OneWeb, Samsung together are planning for their mega-constellations of satellites to be at altitudes of 1,200 to 1,400 kilometers, albeit at different inclinations. Just one of these LEO mega-constellations is expected to incur 2,000 to 3,000 conjunction warnings per day, with two to three within 50 meters. If there is just one collision among these satellites or their corresponding upper stages, the number of events to actively deconflict drastically climbs, and a runaway cascade of collisions could be produced.6 If such a catastrophic “Kessler Syndrome” were to occur in other crowded orbits as well, global communications, navigation, weather reporting, and electrical grids could eventually become disabled.

MEO, which currently contains only 96 satellites,7 is relatively free of debris.8 However, OneWeb wants another 1,280 satellites in MEO at a (so far) publicly undeclared altitude.9 Viasat and O3b also plan to launch satellites into the MEO altitude of 8,200 kilometers.10 Because our GPS orbit in MEO at an altitude of 20,200 kilometers, there is currently little danger of collisions from the newly planned commercial satellites or their upper stages. However, markets and industries rely on GPS satellites to provide not only navigation services, but also precise timing information for financial transactions. For these reasons, new satellites to be launched into MEO need a watchful eye.11

In sum, orbital debris threatens our modern way of life and our plans for future space development. The longer we ignore the 6,300 metric tons of debris already in orbit, while making no new provisions to manage the more than 20,000 new commercial satellites and upper stages to be launched in the next few years, the more vulnerable we will become.

Space traffic management, space situational awareness, and orbital debris cleanup require a standalone agency

The authors generally define STM as the act of managing the orbital altitudes, inclinations, and other characteristics of objects launched from Earth and other planetary bodies to keep them from colliding physically or interfering with each other electromagnetically. More specifically, STM encompasses all systems and processes that assist spacecraft to safely orbit the Earth, including orbital assignment coordination, radio frequency coordination, space surveillance, space situation awareness, collision warning and mitigation, orbital debris minimization and mitigation, and coordination with launch and reentry regulation. STM is a thorny public policy problem that involves balancing technical, legal, and economic variables; stakeholder conflicting interests and worldviews; and complex political/geopolitical environments with diffuse responsibilities and authorities.12

Moreover, better STM of newly-launched spacecraft by itself is not sufficient to make our Earth orbiting people and spacecraft safe. Major efforts to enhance SSA and carry out active debris removal (ADR) are also required to reduce risk to occupants and property destined for, or currently in, space. The authors therefore recommend, along with an energetic STM effort, such major SSA and ADR campaigns. The enhancement of SSA should be to the point where orbital debris objects as small as 1 centimeter in diameter are tracked and conjunction reports for collision avoidance become much more frequent and accurate.13 The ADR effort should make use of emerging public and private technologies.14

The social, political, and technical hurdles on the way to reaching the goals of comprehensive ADR, enhanced SSA, and effective STM are daunting. Because the proposals for reaching any one of these goals will impact reaching the other two, striving for these goals will have to be carried out in a stepwise, integrated fashion. Moreover, any effort to enhance the safety and security of the space environment cannot succeed without the active involvement and support of our military, the commercial satellite industry, and space stakeholders worldwide. Organized action to reach these space sustainability goals will also require adherence to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST).

The United States does not have a unified space program. Through multiple, mostly unconnected players, our country pursues a wide range of activities in space, including military, civil government, and commercial. This lack of coordination among its various parts has caused false starts, scheduling delays, cost overruns, and general inefficiency.15 What is needed is an overarching organizational structure to facilitate and coordinate action by a mix of private and public space actors as they carry out a diverse and growing set of actions for defense and space science, leading to the cooperative and peaceful use of space resources and human settlement of the solar system. Included in this “growing set of actions” are ones now urgently needed to carry out effective STM, enhanced SSA, and comprehensive ADR.

The authors believe that a new standalone civil agency with connections to relevant US government agencies, the commercial satellite community, and international space stakeholders could provide an effectively integrated “action nexus” for reaching safety and security goals in space. The authors therefore recommend the creation of a new federal agency, the FSTA, to carry out effective STM, enhanced SSA, and comprehensive ADR within the context of overall US space activities. Such an agency would ideally combine safety rule creation with regulation enforcement powers, but with an international arm.

The FSTA would be an independent agency at the subcabinet level, not attached to any other agency, but with the capacity to coordinate with all relevant government and private entities, both nationally and internationally. However, several components of the Air Force, NASA, Department of Transportation, Department of Commerce, and other government entities would be integrated into the FSTA. For instance, to keep and better utilize experienced government space personnel, the authors recommend that FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) be merged with Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce and incorporated as a single office into our proposed FSTA.

Other federal agencies and departments, as well as academic and commercial parties, while not to be incorporated into the FSTA, would still have the capacity to advise and coordinate closely with the FSTA’s administration. For instance, the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology, which works to ensure that US space policies and multilateral science activities support US foreign policy objectives and enhance US space and technological competitiveness, would have key role as liaison for and advisor to FSTA vis-à-vis international space entities and issues.

While a high-level federal executive committee to deal with STM, SSA, and ADR could be established by Executive order, the authors believe that a legislative process to establish the FSTA, although slower, would lead to a more stable and durable space agency. No matter how our proposed new federal entity is established, however, it should form and maintain strong connections to FAA, Commerce, State, NASA, and the Defense Department, and coordinate closely with relevant public and private stakeholders, both nationally and internationally. Such latter stakeholders will necessarily include satellite companies, universities, insurance companies and other relevant parties.

The key role the Defense Department could play

Although other Defense Department entities have contributed to space development, since the 1950s the Air Force has been the lead for military space activities.16 The FSTA would receive SSA information from the Defense Department, pass collision warning data to it (to augment what they already have, if appropriate), and oversee coordination of Defense Department satellite orbits and frequency use (at proper classification levels). In sum, the authors believe that Defense Department space resources and prowess should be integrated into FSTA activities in an organized, watchful fashion. The authors therefore recommend that the Air Force establish a special liaison group to connect to all FSTA departments for Defense Department-consenting technology transfer consultations and transfers.

The Air Force could take the lead in the ADR of orbital debris, as it already has the capability to track assets and debris, operate communications globally, launch rockets, and operate assets in space. The Air Force is the only space-connected entity that has the capacity to carry out ADR in coordination with commercial entities, as well as contribute to the enhancement of SSA and STM.

Pay now, or pay more later

The new LEO satellites represent both a threat and an opportunity. As we face the task of managing the coming avalanche of new space traffic and cleaning the trash already in orbit, we are caught in a pay-now-or-pay-more-later situation. With time there will be more collisions between multi-ton bodies and more catastrophic breakups, and cleaning up the mess will cost us all more. Spacefaring nations will be hard pressed to come up with sufficient funds for the cleanup and for the new national and international STM entities. Is there another way to at least help fund both the coming debris cleanup and the STM effort?

In coordination with spacefaring entities worldwide, funding for STM, enhanced SSA, and ADR could come from general government revenues. Another potential source of revenue, at least to help fund STM, SSA, and ADR in orbital bands used by commercial satellites, could come from the end users of satellite services. Because the satellite service industry already generates more than $127 billion annually in gross revenues, even a one-percent fee on service satellite end-user bills would generate over $1 billion annually.17 This money would accrue even before the new 20,000 new commercial satellites are in orbit. With the new satellites providing broadband services, the STM/SSA/ADR funding will climb dramatically.

Currently, no single national or international entity exists to collect and allocate funds for safe space operations that would come from any other revenue source. For this reason, the authors recommend that our proposed FSTA be involved in organizing a fund collection and allocation effort nationally, and coordinate with the State Department to move the effort along internationally with public and private stakeholders worldwide.

Conclusion: national and international action needed

Despite the need for overall international coordination to deal with space issues, dual use technologies within a tense geopolitical context could thwart urgently needed actions to advance STM, SSA, and especially ADR. Bilateral and multilateral agreements to transparently carry out ADR on mutually-selected non-sensitive debris targets, such as defunct upper stages, could greatly ease geopolitical tensions while advancing ADR technologies for the benefit of all. At some point, however, there must be global summit to organize STM/SSA/ADR on a worldwide scale, like when international aviation conferences led to the formation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which now publishes standards and recommendations widely adopted by civil air navigation authorities around the world.

However, the US should not wait for international cooperation to enhance space security, but instead show leadership by transparently forging national STM/SSA/ADR plans and projects, which will serve to induce such international cooperation. The authors recommend that the National Space Council begin an interagency process to begin designing and organizing our proposed FSTA. It is time to create this federal office.


  1. Wang, Brian. “Total global satellite plans could have around 20,000 satellites in low and mid earth orbits in the 2020s.” Next Big Future, 4 March 2017. Also see “SpaceX Wants to Launch 12,000 Satellites,” Parabolic Arc, 3 March 2017.
  2. Brodkin, Jon. “SpaceX’s worldwide satellite broadband network may have a new name: Starlink,” Ars Technica, 20 September 2017.
  3. See Ref. 1.
  4. McNight, Darren and Donald Kessler. “We’ve Already Passed the Tipping Point for Orbital Debris,” IEEE Spectrum, 26 September 2012.
  5. Phipps, Claude, et al. “Removing Orbital Debris with Lasers,” 2011.
  6. Phipps, Claude & Christophe Bonnal. “A spaceborne, pulsed UV laser system for re-entering or nudging LEO debris, and re-orbiting GEO debris,” Acta Astronautica, 118 (2016) 224 – 236.
  7. UCS Satellite Database, last revised 11 April 2017.
  8. Pardini, Carmen and Luciano Anselmo. “Post-disposal orbital evolution of satellites and upper stages used by the GPS and GLONASS navigation constellations: The long-term impact on the Medium Earth Orbit environment,” Acta Astronautica, Volume 77, August–September 2012, Pages 109-117.
  9. Wang, Brian. “Total global satellite plans could have around 20,000 satellites in low and mid earth orbits in the 2020s,” Next Big Future, 4 March 2017.
  10. De Selding, Peter B. “ViaSat and O3b, now distant neighbors, eye confrontation in medium-Earth orbit,” SpaceNews, 21 November 2016.
  11. Werner, Debra. “Hazardous Intersection,” SpaceNews, 11 September 2017.
  12. Weeden, Brian. “Muddling through space traffic management,” SpaceNews, 22 September 2017.
  13. See the National Space Society 2016 policy paper, “Orbital Debris: Overcoming Challenges,” pages 8, 9, and 26 for information about enhancing SSA.
  14. See the National Space Society 2016 policy paper, “Orbital Debris: Overcoming Challenges,” pages 18–23 for information about ADR, which includes On-Orbit Servicing (OOS).
  15. Bennett, James C. “Proposing a ‘Coast Guard’ for Space”, The New Atlantis, 2011.
  16. Ibid.
  17. “State of the Satellite Industry Report,” Satellite Industry Association, June 2017.