Traffic jams in space now in sharp focus, says top US official

Thousands of satellites are being launched by private companies - faster than regulations can act

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A set of international rules is needed to address the growing problem of space traffic, a US government official has said.

John Hill, deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Defence, said space traffic was an international issue that required attention.

He was speaking to The National on the final day of the Abu Dhabi Space Debate, a conference addressing emerging trends in the geopolitics of space.

Companies such as SpaceX are launching mega constellations of satellites, leading to experts' concerns over a crowded Earth orbit.

“It's an important international and global issue,” said Mr Hill.

“One of the panels here at the Space Debate was on the very question of space sustainability, and how do you co-ordinate space traffic globally?

“There are no global rules there. So, it's really a question of the space operators.

“All of us who operate in space have the deep self-interest in ensuring that we develop best practices and those best practices become the norm so that all operators use them.”

Agreements such as the UN Outer Space Treaty and the US-led Artemis Accords currently promote peaceful and responsible use of space and its resources, but none address the issue of space traffic specifically.

Space overcrowded

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched more than 2,300 of its Starlink satellites into space, with many more to come.

The company has plans to operate about 30,000 of these satellites, aiming to provide global internet connectivity.

US regulators on Monday gave SpaceX the go-ahead to launch 7,500 more Starlinks.

UK company OneWeb also plans to launch a mega constellation that would make internet available in remote parts of the world.

China also announced proposals for a low-Earth orbit satellite internet constellation.

A crowded low-Earth orbit could increase the danger of collisions, especially for spacecraft that may encounter debris at higher altitudes.

On October 25, International Space Station thrusters were fired to avoid debris left behind by a satellite destroyed by a Russian anti-satellite test.

The test, which uses military-grade technology to destroy spacecraft, created thousands of fragments of debris.

The conference in Abu Dhabi also addressed the need for regulations as companies increasingly look to commercialise space.

Mr Hill said the US space policy, a document available online, focuses on private industry partnerships.

“It used to be that governments were the main player in space, and whether it was exploration or national security, that’s what drove the innovation and was most of the marketplace,” he said.

“Nowadays, it's much more driven by commercial.

“So, we're focused on creating regulatory environments that encourage that development, while also encouraging space sustainability, which is important to all space operators — civil, commercial and military operators.”

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson gave a video address at the event, in which he spoke about the rise of the private space industry in the US.

The space agency’s commercial crew programme has allowed it to launch astronauts from US soil again after relying on Russia’s Soyuz rocket for more than a decade.

It has teamed up with SpaceX to launch astronauts on the Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon capsule.

UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi will be part of the SpaceX/Nasa Crew-6 mission, scheduled for early next year.

“This is an exciting time for commercial space and we look forward to Sultan’s mission," Mr Nelson said.

“And as we look beyond low-Earth orbit, it’s more important than ever to develop strong international co-operation and collaboration for civilian space exploration.”

Updated: December 06, 2022, 2:08 PM