Balancing the risks and rewards of space

This is the 15th in our series ‘Australia in Space’ leading up to ASPI’s Building Australia’s Strategy for Space conference.

Recent years have seen an explosion of optimism around our ability to reach and exploit space, with a multitude of benefits apparent across all aspects of human endeavour. However the paradigm of ‘Space 2.0’ offers both risks and rewards, and shouldn’t be viewed as an unalloyed good.

The rapid and uncontrolled exploitation of new opportunities without consideration of potential consequences has the potential to aggravate the already congested and competitive character of the space environment, with risks to both Australia’s national interests and the long-term survival of the global commons of outer space.

Firstly, the sheer number of potential satellites planned will tax existing collision deconfliction and traffic management structures. On current forecasts, the number of active satellites will increase in the next decade, from approximately 1,800 to a number approaching 10,000. Within this range, a number of ‘mega-constellations’ are proposed, each containing thousands of satellites. Much of the explosion in numbers is forecast to occur within a fairly constrained orbital regime, within 1,000 kilometres of the surface of the earth.

Such developments may quickly overtake the current means of space surveillance, which is based around the independent verification of orbits by agencies like the US Space Surveillance Network, and in the future the US Department of Commerce. Increasingly, the best source of orbital information will be the operators themselves, which will require new ways of exchanging and verifying such data. Once exchanged, agreed norms of orbit maintenance and deconfliction measures will need to be established between operators. Additionally, the real-time monitoring and adjustment of constellations within a congested environment will drive a level of system autonomy currently unseen in current operations.

Added to this, the increasing miniaturisation of spacecraft—exemplified by the growth of ‘cubesats’—will challenge the ability of existing surveillance systems to track and identify objects in orbit. The distribution of missions across multiple satellites has meant a steady reduction in object size, while modular construction techniques will make more satellites appear alike to external ground- and space-based observers.

Miniaturisation and modularisation offer twin challenges—first the ability to detect and track objects, and second to characterise these objects and associate them with an owner-operator. For example, the bulk of the manifest for the record-setting launch of 104 satellites on an Indian PSLV rocket in February 2017 comprised essentially identical cubesats, which caused identification challenges when they separated from the booster.

These challenges drive a requirement for active identification methods, similar to the radio transponders used by aircraft. However, unless they’re motivated by an understanding of the benefits of ‘best practice’ space operations, owner-operators seeking to prioritise payload space on their spacecraft might treat such measures as being of secondary importance.

Finally, the shrinking costs of entry into space operations enable a range of new players with little or no experience to push the boundaries of missions, orbits and spacecraft design. This newfound access requires the space community to answer not only the question of ‘Can we do it?’, but also ‘Is it a good idea?’

Missions such as the crowd-funded ‘Kicksat’—which planned to dispense ‘chipsats’ the size of credit cards (while short-lived, these were essentially untrackable by existing surveillance sensors)—raise the issue of the bounds of reasonable operations in space. In a similar vein, the recent launch of US satellites (on an Indian launcher) that had been denied FCC approval to operate highlights at best gaps in current regulation, and indicates at worst a ‘Wild West’ mentality among some of those hungry to exploit new opportunities.

In combination, these challenges have the potential to place at risk the safe operation of other spacecraft, and by extension entire orbital regimes. As demonstrated by the accidental collision between an Iridium spacecraft and a decommissioned Russian surveillance satellite, damage to the space environment has the potential to remain a factor for many years to come. With a significant increase in the number of space objects, the risks of cascading consequences from one mistake (the so-called ‘Kessler Syndrome’) are also enhanced.

This isn’t to say that we should discourage space activities. Australia should take advantage of the opportunities presented by space, and where possible reduce the barriers to entry. But such measures should be tempered by sufficient regulation and norms of behaviour to minimise environmental risks, and to maintain the long-term viability of space operations. Thus, the management of space within Australia will need to not only consider the industrial aspects of space, but the safe operation of orbital missions.

The exploitation of new opportunities in space has the potential to significantly benefit many aspects of Australian society. However, like all the other global commons accessed by humanity, there are always risks to accompany the potential rewards. As space becomes more congested and competitive, it behoves us to manage our responsibilities properly to ensure that space remains a source of prosperity into the future.