When it Comes To The Urgent Issue Of Space Congestion, U.S. Space Command Is Little More Than A Weather Forecaster

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Space congestion and space junk are becoming a serious global problem and a potential flashpoint for international conflict. But publicly at least, America’s defense establishment in general and U.S. Space Command in particular can do little about it. Like NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, SPACECOM can’t prevent a storm — they can just tell us when its coming.

A recent Scientific American magazine feature detailing the unabated proliferation of space junk and low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites called the problem “a Space Age tragedy of the commons.”

Fifty-plus years of launching objects into space at an ever-increasing pace is creating a near-Earth traffic jam of flotsam and jetsam from old space vehicles, scattered debris from collisions, and a dense mixture of just-launched and dying satellites.

It’s a scenario retired NASA senior scientist Donald Kessler predicted in the 1970s: As the density of space junk and vehicles goes up, a cascading cycle of debris-generating collisions can arise that could make LEO too hazardous to support most space activities.

Army General James H. Dickinson, the head of U.S. Space Command, is well aware of the problem.

“We’re watching the Russians and Chinese adding to their military and civil space activities, increasing the number of objects on-orbit as well as the explosion in our commercial market where we’ve got tens-of-thousands of satellites that will eventually make it into low Earth orbit,” he told this reporter.

General Dickinson acknowledged space congestion while appearing before Congress in late April. During testimony he also raised concern about a potential dual-use Chinese satellite with a grappling arm (Shijian-17) capability for which space junk is cited as justification.

The uncontrolled re-entry and descent of the core of a Chinese Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket a couple weeks later added to space debris worries. During late-May meetings with the head of South Korea’s military and other U.S. allies in Seoul, Dickinson confirmed the unpredictable de-orbit of the Long March 5B “was at the top of list of what they wanted to discuss.”

While the space congestion-space junk problem is widely recognized (and widely reported), solutions don’t appear to be at hand. The technology to efficiently remove debris (most of which is small) from orbit is not readily being examined by the few private firms experimenting with on-orbit removal technology.

Instead, they tend to focus on larger objects and spacecraft, though they’ve produced little if any track record of dealing with them. Astroscale, a Japanese company, recently launched an End-of-Life Services demonstration (ELSA-d) aiming to demonstrate magnetic-capture of stable or tumbling objects. While it may have some potential, there is as yet, no real business case for such efforts given the lack of regulation — and liability — in space.

It’s worth noting that the vice chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, General David Thompson, recently said it would “make sense” for the government to pay companies to clean up space junk if such services existed. But a market for what might be whimsically called “space janitorial services” looks unlikely to emerge any time soon Dickinson agrees, though he thinks some of the concepts are novel.

For the present, Space Command is watching all of the above. And watching seems to be the extent of what it can do, and must do.

The “must” stems from the fact that despite a 2018 Executive Order by President Trump assigning responsibility for keeping tabs on satellites and orbital debris to the U.S. Commerce Department, congressional budgetary inaction, bureaucratic inertia and the change in Administrations have stalled development of any space monitoring capability by Commerce.

Hence, a “whole-of-government” approach to impending orbital gridlock mentioned repeatedly by General Dickinson during his interview with me doesn’t truly exist. Space Command and the Pentagon are stuck with figuring out how to avert orbital collisions, manage launch windows of opportunity and position government satellites sheerly by means of enhanced monitoring, referred to as Space Domain Awareness (SDA).

General Dickinson says the U.S. needs to broaden its ability “to detect and characterize what we see in the space domain.” To do that he suggests devoting more surveillance resources to SDA, including the ground-based radars of American allies.

“It depends on what country you’re talking about but generally they have good geography to help us see what we might not [otherwise] be able to see.”

Dickinson’s background as the senior Air Defense Artillery Officer in the U.S. Army leads to him favor a kind of “layered” approach to SDA similar to missile defense. In fact, he advocates incorporating existing sensor systems including Army tactical air/missile defense radars and the Navy’s AEGIS air defense radars into a layered SDA system. The General points out that he told the House and Senate Armed Services Committees as much in April.

We should also be leveraging commercial capabilities, including those in orbit, to bolster SDA Dickinson adds. That might logically suggest consultation with large LEO satellite constellation owners like SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon

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. However, no specific discussions between Space Command and these firms were cited by Gen. Dickinson.

SpaceX did not return a query on whether it has discussed the orbital dynamics of its Starlink constellation or shared any long-term modeling for the probability of collisions with Space Command, U.S. Space Force or the Pentagon.

According to Space News, SpaceX and OneWeb have met with the Federal Communications Commission regarding an alleged close approach between satellites of each company. According to OneWeb, the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron projected on March 30 that the two satellites would come within about 60 meters of each other. Space Force later put the distance at 1,120 meters.

The incident is a reminder that orbital collisions are daily possibilities. But in the absence of globally agreed spaceflight traffic control or a viable space junk removal industry, all we’re left with General Dickinson says is the question, “What are the responsible behaviors self-implemented by the market or potentially among other nations to make sure that new mega-constellations are properly planned so that they don’t continue to contribute to the problem?”

How much further can we go with the “launch it and leave it” way of doing business before space operations become impractical? Dickinson says he can’t “tell you a number of years,” just that it’s a growing problem.

Space Command’s leader offered no specific answers on how difficult congestion is making it to schedule a launch, how often U.S. government and commercial satellites are maneuvered to avoid collisions, or how maneuvering for avoidance reduces satellite life cycles.

There is the possibility that Space Command via the broader U.S. military has classified capability to move or remove some space vehicles or objects from various orbits.

But the lack of public acknowledgment of any such capability moves America nor the international community any closer to a solution. The likely practical, legal and strategic limits of what a black system could do leave Space Command with few real courses of action in any case.

In that respect Space Command is much like a government meteorological service, just for space. It cannot directly affect or influence the weather but it can, with better SDA, provide more accurate forecasts of what’s brewing over the horizon, giving enough warning to allow some space assets to avoid a collision.

The efficacy of this default ultimately rests on just how much more clutter gets thrown into orbit and how well international governmental and commercial sat operators heed its “tornado” or “hurricane” warnings. As General Dickinson says: “Our job is to provide information, like we did for the Long March 5 [re-entry] to Space-track.org and some other venues to make the public aware. That information also goes to our allies and partners. How that information is used… they choose how to do that.”

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