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Subcommittee Discusses Space Traffic Management

Status Report From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democrats
Posted: Friday, May 9, 2014

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(Washington, DC) - Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's Subcommittee on Space held a hearing titled, "Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life 'Gravity.'"  The purpose of the hearing was to explore the roles agencies have in dealing with orbital debris, authorities granted by Congress to oversee these agencies, and Administration plans to coordinate orbital debris activities.  Testifying before the Subcommittee were Lieutenant General John W. "Jay" Raymond, U.S. Air Force Commander, JFCC-Space United States Strategic Command; Mr. George Zamka, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); Mr. Robert Nelson, Chief Engineer in the International Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); Mr. P.J. Blount, Research Counsel at the National Center for Remote Sensing and Air and Space Law Instructor at the University of Mississippi School of Law; and Mr. Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor at the Secure World Foundation.

Ranking Member of the Space Subcommittee, Donna F. Edwards, said "While the accuracy of all of the events depicted in the movie 'Gravity' can be questioned, there is no doubt it has made the public more aware of the danger of orbital debris.  And that's a good thing. The real world nature of the danger was brought into stark focus by the aftermath of the 2007 anti-satellite test conducted by China.  This incident is said to have created an estimated debris population of 150,000 objects larger than 1 centimeter in size.  The resulting increase in space debris has made the space environment more hazardous to military, civil, and commercial satellites and spacecraft for years to come."

She continued, "So what are we doing to make space travel safe from orbital debris?  Today, a number of government agencies have a role in orbital debris mitigation...However, what isn't quite clear is which agencies have or could have legitimate roles in space traffic management--that is, the authority to tell a space operator to move a spacecraft should the potential for collision from debris or another spacecraft require it."

There are currently five federal agencies that play a substantial role in orbital debris mitigation and tracking.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has authority over the preponderance of U.S. civil government space missions and has developed a policy and specific procedural requirements for orbital debris mitigation; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has licensing and regulatory authority over remote sensing spacecraft and a licensing requirement for spacecraft disposal to ensure that applicants comply with U.S. government orbital debris mitigation practices; the Department of Defense's (DOD) Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is responsible for tracking orbital debris; the FCC has jurisdiction for mitigating orbital debris from commercial satellites; and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation includes orbital debris mitigation regulations in its licensing of commercial launch and reentry vehicles.

Members raised a number of questions such as whether space traffic management requires an international approach; what liability agencies in charge of space traffic management should assume if their actions or lack thereof result in a collision and creation of debris; and what information is needed before Congress would move forward with legislation on these issues.

Ms. Edwards said, "These are just a few of the questions this Subcommittee will need to address if we aim to lay the groundwork for ensuring the safety of future spaceflight from orbital debris and other spacecraft. These are complex issues and there are a lot more questions to be asked and answered before we are ready to legislate in this area."

Ranking Member of the Full Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) agreed with Ms. Edwards. She said, "Dealing with the increase in orbital debris will not be easy.  The issues associated with its mitigation and its potential removal from orbit are complex.  A number of agencies are involved, not all of whom are represented at today's hearing.  I am pleased that the bipartisan NASA Authorization bill that we recently marked up now contains several provisions related to orbital debris.  I believe that their inclusion is a useful start to addressing this complex set of issues.  That said, I would caution against legislating further in this area until we have a better understanding of the issues involved.  This hearing provides a good starting point for Members to learn about both the challenge presented by orbital debris as well as some of the potential approaches to dealing with that challenge."

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