FAA Eager to Start Space Traffic Transition Written 11 January 2017

Panelists: Moderator Moriba Jah, director of space object behavioral sciences, University of Arizona; Travis Blake, senior manager, Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center; P.J. Blount, adjunct professor, University of Mississippi; Mike Gazarik, vice president of engineering, Ball Aerospace; Don Greiman, vice president and general manager of commercial space situational awareness, Schafer Corp.; retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms; George Nield, associate administrator of commercial space transportation, FAA

by Ben IannottaAerospace America Editor-in-Chief

Panelists discuss "Space Traffic Management," Jan. 12 at the 2017 AIAA SciTech Forum, in Grapevine, Texas.

The U.S. is gravitating toward giving the FAA the job of warning satellite operators about potential collisions, something the Air Force currently does. At the moment, no one knows exactly how the FAA would manage space traffic and what role the industry might play.

The "Space Traffic Management" panel discussed those issues Jan. 11 at the 2017 AIAA SciTech Forum in Grapevine, Texas.

Would the shift mean regulations and rules similar to those the FAA makes to manage air traffic? Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms said satellite operators are definitely "scared" of that possibility. She noted that the U.S. military's Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks space objects and alerts civilian operators, does not have authority to require satellite operators to maneuver or take other actions.

The FAA's George Nield jumped to clarify the situation: "FAA has no intention of immediately" establishing regulations. If that is going to come, he said, "that is many years off."

The first focus would be on improving knowledge of the space environment, he said.

"There's a lot of progress that can be made on information sharing," Nield said. "We want to be ready to have a value-added set of products and services as soon as we have a switch over from the Air Force."

Nield cautioned against the temptation to hold up the transition until every question is answered and a perfect plan is in place.

"I think we have a remarkable consensus now on the direction to head. We just need to get started," he said.

Schafer Corp.'s Don Greiman made the case for a large commercial role in space traffic management through a public-private partnership with the FAA. He said today's catalogue of space objects maintained by the military does not predict the locations of objects precisely enough, partly because there are not enough telescopes and radars. As a result, the actual location of an object may be off. He said in one recent case, the observed location varied from the predicted location by more than 7 kilometers.

"We gotta do better than that, there's no doubt about it," he said, adding that commercially operated sensors should play a large role.

Today's system is not very refined. Helms, a former commander of the 14th Air Force, which includes the Joint Space Operations Center, told a story of a close collision call between two satellites during her command. "The team was desperately looking for phone numbers" for the satellite operators, she said. She could not be sure there was not a collision until the objects were detected again as single objects.

"It's a very difficult analytical project to [predict a collision] in an urgent sense," she said. "We need to think of this as sort of a crowdsourcing problem."

Space lawyer P.J. Blount of the University of Mississippi expressed concern about how the problem might be handled given the state of national politics in the U.S.

"We're seeing a step away from multilateralism," he said, a step away from "coordination" with other nations.

One panelist questioned whether enforcement would ultimately be necessary.

"How are we going to cooperate in space without that policing effort?" asked Mike Gazarik of Ball Aerospace.

That cooperation could prove difficult. Travis Blake of Lockheed Martin pointed to history, noting that as soon as nations began plying the seas and flying aircraft, they began contesting control of those domains.

"To understand that space would be different is to ignore what the history of those other domains has told us," he said.


All 2017 AIAA SciTech Forum Videos