The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is cause for great celebration and appreciation for the ingenuity of humankind. But we must also use this opportunity to reflect upon mistakes that were made and the importance of implementing responsible space traffic management systems as we enter the latest phase of interplanetary exploration.
Exploration has always involved risk, with little regard for environmental impact. Today, although significant risk has been retired, there is still little regard for the environment. When it comes to space, the moon and Mars are already occupied by human-made equipment left behind from previous missions. Some see these obsolete objects as monuments to humanity’s ingenuity, but in reality, it is simply debris.
And it is not getting any better. The current tally on so-called resident space objects that are being tracked is about 26,000, and of these, only about 2,000 are working satellites. All else is defunct rubbish. U.S. companies alone intend to launch a combined 15,000 more satellites within the next five years or so, almost doubling everything we’ve tracked since Apollo.
This means that as we commercialize space services and activities, we should do so with a mindfulness for environmental protection of this global commons. There is a limit on how much traffic any orbital region, or space highway, can take for safe and sustainable operations. Much of what we launch into space never comes back.
In a perfect world, we could predict how this space trash will move in these space highways. However, the real forces experienced by resident space objects are dependent on their physical characteristics, and these are precisely the things we don’t know. This makes predicting the motion of nearly 26,000 objects difficult and thus a hazard to space safety and sustainability.
The United Nations Committee On Peaceful Uses of Outer Space recently adopted by consensus 21 guidelines for the “Long Term Sustainability of Space Activities.” These guidelines provide an impetus to behave in sustainable ways such as making a satellite as easily and independently tracked as possible and preemptively disclosing when and where a satellite will be displaced.
This is a good step, but it is not legally binding. Every nation should seek to implement these guidelines and perhaps move to enforce these as “space laws” in their respective nations. But how can you know whether a given country or actor is compliant? What is the required “body of evidence” to support such a hypothesis?
You can’t manage what you don’t know, and you don’t know what you don’t measure.
To that end, reliable space traffic monitoring systems must be used that can impartially quantify, with multiple independent sources, the population of space objects near Earth. In doing so, we could provide a “body of evidence” of space object behaviors that could be used to underwrite space laws and regulations.
This could incentivize sustainable space behavior and draw attention to space actors who think that just because they are acting in space, they are somehow above the law. Currently, the World Economic Forum has initiated a global effort to develop a so-called Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) that would incentivize sustainable behaviors in space.
NASA also needs to get more involved. Administrator Jim Bridenstine should initiate a NASA Space Situational Awareness Institute with the sole purpose of developing and helping us transition the required sciences and technologies to support a global and civil Space Traffic Management system.
This is actually goal No. 1 of a national space policy directive signed by President Donald Trump just over one year ago.
The Apollo 11 moon landing was a catalyst for all of the amazing progress that’s been made since 1969. But that was 50 years ago. We have enough perspective now to appreciate the damage that can be done when free enterprise, particularly in a market as untethered as the solar system, is left unchecked. We all need to remember that we have a chance to mitigate the problems before they are too big to overcome.
Moriba Jah is an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today.