The activities in space call for an assurance of operations in terms of traffic management, debris tracking, and debris mitigation practices to promote safety in space and sustain long-term use of space. Both space traffic management (STM) and debris mitigation are critical for the coordination, planning, and practices necessary for space safety and long-term sustainability. A lack of STM can lead to a rapidly increasing debris environment and, in turn, to the potential loss of space missions. In the extreme, this could lead to both human and spacecraft casualties in space, in the air, or on the ground.
The Aerospace Corporation views long-term sustainability of outer space as a critical issue for its Space Safety Institute. Performing space operations has become more complex as a result of space debris and other active satellites. As such, space operations assurance requires increased understanding of the space environment and the effects of the environment on the reliability and function of operating spacecraft.
Space Traffic Management
STM is a set of technical and regulatory provisions for promoting safe space operations. It includes the planning, coordination, and on-orbit synchronization of activities to enhance the safety, stability, and sustainability of operations in the space environment. This covers a range of activities, including preflight planning, policies, coordination, operations, and when needed, rulemaking to ensure space safety and sustainability.
The population of objects in Earth orbit has been increasing at an accelerating rate. This includes significant increases in the number of active satellites, the creation of large constellations resulting in unprecedented concentrations of objects, and a substantial expansion in the number and types of satellite operators. These changes necessitate a more structured approach to coordinating and managing space operations to keep those operations safe.
STM is sometimes mistaken for “space traffic control,” analogous to air traffic control, and while there is a realtime aspect to STM, the analogy to the air and sea domains is limited. The realtime aspect of STM is the use of space situational awareness (SSA) data to predict potential collisions, reentries, or other potential safety hazards so steps can be taken to reduce the risk or possibly to avoid a collision. This is currently done by simply notifying operators and letting them decide how and whether to act. Conceptually, STM can also include evaluation of mitigation activities, such as collision avoidance maneuvers or the prescreening of realtime flight plans, and the controlled distribution and sharing of SSA data.
Space operations assurance can also include non-realtime aspects of space safety and sustainability, including debris mitigation, safe mission design, and compliance assessments.
Aerospace has been deeply involved in all aspects of what is now known as STM since the earliest days of the company. We continue to support both the theory and practices of SSA and the acquisition of the sensors and their implementation. We have pioneered collision avoidance analysis and practices for both launch and on-orbit activities. We have long been a leader in the analysis of reentry risk and debris prevention through our Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS). Through our support of both the civil and the national security space community, we have been deeply involved in all aspects of analysis and policy related to space safety and are continuing this involvement through the Space Safety Institute. For example, Aerospace studies and discussions contributed directly to U.S. Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3): National Space Traffic Management Policy.
Part of Aerospace’s sophisticated tools and capabilities have been used to assess a wide range of safety-related aspects of operating in space. For example, Aerospace conducts debris mitigation compliance assessments for the U.S. Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center and other organizations through space debris assessment reports, including lifetime probability of collision, postmission disposal plans, and reentry risk assessments.
Aerospace also conducts assessments of:
- The impact of proposed satellite constellations on the space environment and the cost of space operations
- The impact of the space environment on satellite systems and hardware (e.g., solar panels, thermal radiators, batteries, electrical components)
- Contractor proposals for compliance with regulatory requirements (e.g., reentry hazard assessments)
- Proposals to mitigate space debris
In support of ensuring space debris and hazards are minimized, the Space Safety Institute can:
- Provide data and analyses to support development of government licensing rules and requirements (e.g., FCC proposed rulemaking on space debris mitigation)
- Provide independent analyses of contractor proposals
- Assess cost impact and cost effectiveness of proposed rules and regulations
- Simulate satellite constellation launch and insertion to review possible on-orbit conjunctions
- Review end-of-life debris mitigation plans
Standards and Best Practices
Aerospace experts regularly participate in standards development activities of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to develop standards that capture best practices for space debris mitigation and for operating in a debris environment. Our experts also contribute to Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) efforts to research and develop consensus approaches for space debris mitigation. In addition, we:
- Collaborate with national and international organizations to develop regulations and standards to assist satellite designers and operators to protect critical satellite components from small space debris and micrometeoroid impacts
- Develop Space Force standards for space debris mitigation that have served as models for international standards
Research and Development
Aerospace has researched space systems and the space environment since its founding, and this work has been instrumental in moving the space community forward on space debris mitigation. These research results provide the foundation for the Space Safety Institute’s assessments.
Aerospace has conducted significant research in STM-related fields and technology and has enabled numerous innovations, particularly collision probability algorithm developments and catalog covariance estimation. For example, Aerospace invented and flies the Reentry Breakup Recorder and analyzes recovered reentry debris. Aerospace is a leader in reentry risk analysis, including debris survivability, expected casualty risk calculation, and reentry location prediction. In addition, Aerospace has conducted ground-breaking analysis of the space debris environment. This includes explosion and hypervelocity collision modeling and realtime debris event satellite risk assessment. We perform debris mitigation technique development and assessment and have conducted a physical hypervelocity collision debris characterization test series.
We build on this research to:
- Develop and publish state-of-the-art tools for predicting conjunctions of orbiting objects and alerting satellite operators of possible collisions
- Assess and validate government and commercial tools for SSA and STM
- Develop simulations that extrapolate the current space environment into a future that includes the existence of very large constellations of commercial satellites
- Develop estimates of the short- and long-term effects of possible debris mitigation guidelines
- Assess effectiveness of proposed satellite reliability and disposal requirements
Infrastructure, Tools, and Data
Aerospace maintains a library of tools and data that is regularly used to answer questions about the past, current, and future space environments as affected by natural and human-made sources. These tools are used to:
- Compare and validate predictions by U.S. and international models
- Advise government agencies on possible rule makings
- Support contractor needs for information
- Assess and resolve the possible causes of spacecraft anomalies
- Provide quick, near-realtime assessments of the threat to spacecraft after in-orbit collisions and explosions
We use state-of-the-art capabilities to investigate the effects of the space environment on sensitive electronic and optical systems.
Additional examples of related tools include:
- Tools and techniques pioneered by Aerospace for all phases of launch collision avoidance (LCOLA). We have conducted mission assurance LCOLA assessments for national security customers for more than 20 years.
- The Debris Analysis Response Team (DART), created and operated by Aerospace, which is a unique capability to do both predictive and realtime risk assessments for operational spacecraft from debris-creating events. DART and its tools have been on call for the government for more than a dozen years. DART tools and algorithms inform, assess, validate, and guide the acquisition of operational debris risk assessment tools.
- Aerospace’s Acquisition Support and Systems Engineering Tool (ASSET) database, which collects information on launch vehicle and spacecraft anomalies and provides information on the effects of space weather on satellite systems.
Policy and Strategy
To inform policy and guideline development, tools are used to quantify the benefits and costs of different approaches to safety space operations and debris mitigation. This provides critical insights for developing agency, national, and international level rules and best practices that are both effective and minimize impacts on innovation.
- Paper: Slash the Trash: Incentivizing Deorbit (Apr 2020)
- Paper: GPS Transponders for Space Traffic Management (Apr 2020)
- Paper: Establishing Space Traffic Management Standards, Guidelines, and Best Practices (Sep 2019)