Space is vast but do not be lulled into a false and dangerous sense of complacency. Quality of life on Earth relies on applications and services provided by satellite operations. Miniaturization and technology advances such as multiple deployments from a single launch have increased the number of satellites, particularly in low Earth orbit . This increase in the number of active satellites adds to the danger represented by an enormous amount of debris, the largest percentage of which is lethal non-trackable debris.
Now, add to the mix the reality that these smaller satellites sharing the orbital environment with all of this debris are now moving around and, in one business model, moving around autonomously driven by algorithms that are not shared with all other operators.
The vastness of space has the potential to lull users into a false and dangerous sense of complacency. Once this blissful ignorance is penetrated, the impulse is often to immediately draft and promulgate regulations to set order in place. Add to this the international nature of space exploration and use, and the appetite of many regulatory theorists for immediate, top-down, global solutions is whetted. Improving orbital safety is serious. Quality of life on Earth relies on applications and services provided by satellite operations. However, the baseline assumptions upon which governance choices rely are undergoing rapid and intrinsic change. Technology advances have increased the number of satellites, particularly in low Earth orbit. Two examples are miniaturization and multiple deployments from a single launch. The increase in the number of active satellites adds to the danger represented by an enormous amount of debris, the largest percentage of which is lethal non-trackable debris. Now, add to the mix the reality that these smaller satellites sharing the orbital environment with all of this debris are now moving around and, in one business model, moving around autonomously driven by algorithms that are not shared with all other operators. The rules that currently govern are primarily focused on mitigation of the creation of more debris. While mitigation once relied upon design and end of life requirements, the conversation about space safety is now beginning to include protocols for improved situational awareness data and noticing and collision avoidance capabilities. While it is clear that more standards, requirements, and, ultimately, regulations are needed, there are a number of approaches to the development of effective rules that are well-rationalized, enforceable, or of such obvious benefit to all that they are followed voluntarily. Not all rules are created equally. Only some will actually improve the safety of the space operations environment. Effective norms and rules in this inherently international situation will also rely heavily upon agreement and alignment among regulators of multiple jurisdictions. Strict national rules governing a satellite operator in an orbital location near a satellite from a more lenient jurisdiction will not achieve the desired outcome. Planning, coordination, and transparent cooperation will. There is a need for diverse discussion among the many involved stakeholders and disciplines, utilizing diplomacy and building capacity where needed, to collaborate internationally to make space safer. This is the foundational legacy of international cooperation upon which our legal framework is built.
Since the first orbital launch in 1957, the number of artificial objects in Earth orbit has been growing. The issue of managing space traffic has been around for more than a decade. However, the intensification of space activities worldwide as well as the emergence of new actors and new concepts are raising new challenges to ensure the security, safety, and sustainability of space activities. The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) released a first study on Space Traffic Management (STM) in 2006 providing a visionary view on the future use of outer space. It analyzed on a trans-disciplinary basis the various dimensions and phases of STM and suggested a framework for a comprehensive space traffic management regime as well as possible first steps for improving the situation. It also proposed a STM definition: “Space Traffic Management means the set of technical and regulatory provisions for promoting safe access into outer space, operations in outer space and return from outer space to Earth free from physical or radio-frequency interference,” which has been adopted in other publications and outside the academic world, mentioned in various NASA Authorization Acts. In 2018, the IAA released a second study that adjusted the concept of STM to current advancements in space activities as well as to geopolitical developments. In addition to presenting a more coherent and robust concept of STM, the study discussed the potential of STM to influence or shape the evolution of the legal and regulatory framework for space activities. The study provided a detailed set-out of potential traffic rules, structured a potential STM regime and proposed a concrete roadmap for implementation. It concluded that half a century after the entry into force of the Outer Space Treaty, STM could provide for a systematic and coordinated approach capturing technical and regulatory aspects of space activities in a coherent manner. Any comprehensive STM regime would have to be elaborated in an inclusive and inter-disciplinary manner, with the participation of all interested States, and could reasonably be achieved in a timeframe of 15 years. Once in place, it could be a powerful tool addressing the safety and sustainability of space activities and guaranteeing the continued use of outer space free form harmful or unwanted interference, for the benefit of humankind. From the foreword by ICJ Judge Peter Tomka: “By analyzing the underlying developments in the space environment, the technical prerequisites for the implementation of the legal regime, and its key regulatory elements, the present study can be considered as a leading work for reference purposes, as well as a good basis for further discussion”.
Effective space traffic management is an essential prerequisite for sustainable long-term human activities in Earth orbits in the long-term. While there are various understandings and definitions of STM, the essence of the concept usually concerns an effort to devise an international framework that would enhance the safety of accessing and using space and facilitate the sustainability of the space operational environment in the long-term. The problem of STM today is not that it would be non-existent. In fact, we already have frameworks for the management of space traffic. The problem is that our current STM framework is insufficient and not adapted to future operational challenges associated with the quickly evolving space sector. Improving our STM efforts should be based on the three key ingredients: Firstly, we need to significantly enhance our technical capabilities to better manage the growing risks in orbit, especially the risk of collisions. In particular, space surveillance and space situational awareness needs to further improve to reduce the uncertainties associated with positions and trajectories of space objects, including the very small ones, often impossible to see with our current sensors. In addition to SST and SSA, the need for better technical capabilities also concerns all phases of space mission lifecycle, including active debris removal, in order to reduce debris-generating occasions. Secondly, we need to enhance our normative landscapes governing and regulating the conduct of space activities. STM is largely about the rules of behaviour, and the rulemaking segment has to be an integral part of improving our current STM framework. The point here is not necessarily about just a stricter regulatory regime. It is about updating our regulatory requirements through addressing the gaps and missing pieces in contemporary regulations (e.g. rules for handling collision avoidance manoeuvres and procedures) in a smart way, in which we can enhance the notion of safety without excessively increasing the cost of access to space. Lastly, we need to better coordinate our activities in space with other actors that share this very same operational environment as we do. Near-Earth space, in particular at lower orbits in LEO, is a confined, highly dynamic environment governed by unavoidable laws of physics. The more we venture and operate there, the more we need to acknowledge the activities of others and make sure that we do the best we can in exchanging technical and operational information, maintaining functional lines of communication and implementing best practices.
Space Traffic Management (STM) was defined by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) “Cosmic Study on STM” of 2006 as “the set of technical and regulatory provisions for promoting safe access into outer space, operations in outer space and return from outer space to Earth free from physical or radio-frequency interference”. The relevance of STM results from the need to improve safety of outer space activities. The increase in the number of satellites, especially small satellites launched in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the growing volume of space debris and the complex operations associated with the remediation of space debris, may increase the risk of collisions and thus affecting the safety of operations in outer space. By making LEO safer, STM can contribute to the safety of human spaceflight. STM can accommodate operations taking place exclusively in outer space, which makes such a regime relevant for the imminent lunar activities. Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is a key component of STM. SSA data can support the ability to predict the location of objects in orbit and assess the risk of collisions. Sharing of SSA data can improve the precision of locating objects in orbit, but it may also raise concerns about competition and national security. For such reasons, some limitations in sharing of data may be imposed. Traffic rules are a main component of STM, including the right of way but also more specific rules. The consequence of developing traffic rules and sharing SSA data is the ability of attributing fault. The STM regime should also comprise mechanisms for implementation and enforcement, at national and international level. An international STM regime should find the balance between the right to access space and use it safely, while avoiding carrying abnormal burdens, especially for the newcomers in space activities. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) is a multilateral forum which can facilitate the negotiation of STM. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) system of law-making and coordination can be a model for an international STM regime. While taking into consideration the particularities of the space environment, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) air traffic management framework should also be analyzed. To avoid the development of unilateral standards for accessing space, STM should be negotiated by all states, and not only by one or by a group of states. Thus, the role of multilateral forums to develop an international STM regime is increasing.
Space Community is growing rapidly and is becoming more fast paced than ever before. Exciting technologies and new actors are emerging, we are celebrating successes and breaking down the barriers between the impossible and achievable. Countries all over the globe are creating and establishing their own domestic space laws and policies, and we can’t deny that we witnessed a dramatic increase in space activity in the last decade. Are regulations and international legally binding norms regulating space activities following fast enough? At a first glance it might seem like the international legal regime remained static and that we see a decline in adoption of legally binding norms. Yet, we must take into consideration a number of domestic laws and practices that are legally binding and inform the international law. Space Traffic Management (STM) is widely and internationally acknowledged as a concept for regulation of space activities. While it is true that we currently do not have a formal work plan, or an internationally adopted legal regime for STM, we do see STM as a regular item on the agenda of the Legal Subcommittee of UN Committee for Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. This is a clear indicator that the wide international community acknowledges STM as a potential framework for the future. Our common goal should be protecting both the Earth, and the outer space. The measures we are adopting should reflect our reality, and not be adopted just for the sake of regulation. Climate monitoring, satellite navigation and Earth observation, are all giving us the tools that are necessary for contributing to the betterment of all lives, but the question remains: how do we identify what is of utmost importance for consideration, when it comes to protecting the Earth and outer space? The concerns for long term sustainability of outer space are identified in the Long-Term Sustainability Guidelines, adopted in 2019 in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. These Guidelines are crucial for the necessary development of tools for space situational awareness, space debris mitigation and for the establishment of both regimes and frameworks for the regulation of space activities, as well as for the guidance for those, who are involved in such activities. Finding ways to successfully implement these guidelines is the challenge that States, and international intergovernmental organizations, will be facing in the near future.
Space traffic management is defined by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) as “the set of technical and regulatory provisions for promoting safe access into outer space, operations in outer space and return from outer space to earth free from physical or radio-frequency interference.” Today, in view of many newly privately prepared space activities of commercial nature such as the use of communication satellites, the use of remote sensing satellites, the use of positioning satellites, space tourism and perhaps later also space transportation, it is important that all these activities can be followed up in order to know where in outer space and the most frequented orbits activities take place. This is of course necessary in order to avoid collisions which again would be counterproductive to a usable outer space by producing large amounts of space debris. The concept of following objects whilst flying through the airspace is one of the major achievements of international air flight. Without traffic control, it would hardly be possible to have aviation as one of the most prominent means of transportation of passengers and goods through the entire world. But here an important difference elucidates difficulties for space traffic management: Whereas the air space “belongs” to the subjacent state and the subjacent state is thus responsible for a safe and secure flying of foreign aircraft flying its airspace by fulfilling this responsibility with its air traffic control, outer space belongs to all humankind and it is difficult to establish an authority with this responsibility for all outer space. Arguably this must be an international authority established in the same spirit as the treaties on outer space are designed. Therefore, one can discuss for example to either entitle the United Nations Outer Space Affairs Division (UNOOSA) with this additional task or to use the existing experience from the International Civil Aviation Organization. It is important in the future that the international community comes up with legal rules that also clarify the relationship of the civil and the military use of outer space.
The establishment of an international space traffic management system is quickly becoming one of the most pressing issues within the space community, and unsurprisingly so. As Earth’s orbits become increasingly congested and the strategic importance associated with the use of outer space keeps growing, the importance of setting up an internationally recognized system of rules and operational practices that enhances the safety of space objects and the long-term sustainability of space activities is gradually being acknowledged by space operators on a worldwide basis. Among the advantages of having an international space traffic management system there is one aspect that, while being at times under-represented, it is, instead, highly important: its contribution to avoid escalation, and possibly even conflicts, in outer space; this is particularly true when one thinks of proximity operations that, while being generally intended to serve peaceful purposes, such as space debris removal or spacecraft refueling, may be in principle carried out to pursue malevolent and offensive behaviors against other countries’ satellites. Indeed, a proximity maneuver that has not been agreed among the operators of the satellites involved prior to its implementation might be easily perceived as a ‘life threatening’ move and be met by a ‘armed’ response of some sort; under such circumstances, the situation could escalate quickly and turn into a much larger conflict. In light of the current absence of international rules addressing this matter, it would be ideal for a space traffic management regime to include provisions regulating proximity operations so as to enhance predictability of behaviors in outer space, avoid misunderstanding and ensure that close-proximity space maneuvers are undertaken pursuant to appropriate safety criteria. Undeniably, reaching an agreement on such rules will be a challenging task and only through a combination of domestic, bilateral and multilateral initiatives, as well as significant diplomatic efforts, that meaningful results could be achieved. No matter the difficulties associated with this process, it is the duty of the international community, including of space lawyers, to make all necessary efforts to enhance the long-term sustainability of space activities.