ESPI Series: Space Traffic Management

European Space Policy Institute

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Tomas Hrozensky

ESPI Series - on Space Traffic Management

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.


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