Space is a big place, but our upper atmosphere isn’t. Rapidly increasing numbers of satellites orbit there, in addition to innumerable bits of space debris, and rockets fly through it on missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and deep space. President Trump’s newly revived National Space Council will have to manage this busy region and beyond.
Ramin A. Skibba (@raminskibba) is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist based in San Diego.
The council members—which include heads of dozens of agencies, including the state, defense, commerce, transportation, and homeland security departments—have their work cut out for them as they develop recommendations for national space policy. Regulating and enabling commercial space activities will likely be a top priority, and the group will likely need to address issues including space debris and potentially militarized satellites. Given the risks of weaponizing space if the US, China, and Russia take their disputes beyond earth, and considering the commercial space industry’s uncertain position with respect to national and international law, the council’s first and primary goal should be to pursue space diplomacy.
In a March op-ed published in The Hill, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, wrote that “primacy in space is inseparable from primacy in the world.” Pace, who’s expected be named the space council’s executive director, emphasized the need to support national security and priorities—an “America First” policy in space. But space is international, and like Antarctica, it’s not owned by anyone, so Pace and his colleagues should proceed with caution.
The United States alone has about 600 government, military, and commercial satellites in low-Earth orbit. The majority of them are GPS and communications satellites. If they were disrupted somehow, it would affect telephones, television, radio, navigation, and internet access.
But China and Russia—which clearly have their own national interests—also have hundreds of satellites each. If the US were to militarize satellites, even in the name of deterrence, it could lead to a dangerous arms race in space. All three countries have anti-satellite missiles as well, and each is also developing other technologies including ground-based lasers. While a war in space seems unlikely, there’s no reason to escalate tensions and risk outright conflict.
In 2007, China’s anti-satellite system deliberately blew a Chinese satellite into smithereens, adding thousands of pieces of shrapnel to the mix and worsening the space junk problem. NASA is tracking tens of thousands of space debris objects, but there are hundreds of millions more that are too small to be tracked, like so many space bullets that occasionally pummel orbiting spacecraft. A chain reaction of crashing satellites, like in the movie Gravity, could happen, especially as the debris adds up.
Cleaning up space debris will require international collaboration and coordination, and private industry can help. Space agencies and commercial interests have proposed many ways to deploy spacecraft to collect derelict satellites and space junk or send them to graveyard orbits, possibly using harpoons, tethers, nets, or even a pulsed electron beam. However experts decide to resolve the problem, it will be costly and time-consuming.
Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Moon Express, Deep Space Industries, and Planetary Resources have designs far beyond merely launching spacecraft, delivering cargo and cleaning up space junk. They want to build bases on the moon and Mars and eventually extract resources from asteroids. If we don’t want space to become the Wild West, with international legal battles and disputes over valuable territory, it will be up to the government—along with other nations and international institutions—to take the lead. Just as the federal government scrambles to keep up with proliferating drones, it has limited time to do the same with the next frontier, the burgeoning commercial space industry.
With the international nature of space exploration and of potential threats like killer asteroids, which need to be monitored and, if necessary, deflected, leaders from the US and other space-faring nations need to work together.
Vice President Mike Pence, chair of the space council, has given few signs about what he, Pace, and their colleagues want to do, though Pence has emphasized the private space industry, human spaceflight, and national security. More leadership, as well as broad scientific, political, and regulatory expertise, will be needed to address all of these complex issues and make recommendations to the president. Setting the right priorities now will have implications long after the Trump presidency.
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