Space Commerce

Do We Need a Space Traffic Cop?

By Keith Cowing
May 8, 2014
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Do We Need a Space Traffic Cop?
Space debris

At 10:00 am tomorrow (Friday, May 9) the Space Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life ‘Gravity’.
Concerns about the dangers presented by orbital debris have intensified due to China’s anti-satellite test in 2007, and public awareness of the problem increased due to the popular movie Gravity released last fall. The growth of the orbital debris population in key orbits around the Earth presents a series of challenges for the United States and other spacefaring nations. Debris can be caused by any number of things and can range in size from a couple centimeters to entire satellites. Each object, no matter its size, poses a threat to our assets in space and to the safe transport of humans and payloads in low-Earth orbit and beyond. Objects, as small as a paint fleck at extremely high relative velocities (approximately 17,500 miles per hour), can cause damage.

At least two major space debris incidents have occurred since 2000. First is the collision between Iridium-33, a commercial communications satellite, and Kosmos-2251, a decommissioned Russian military communications satellite. The collision happened at approximately 26,170 mph and is described as a “hypervelocity collision.” It is believed that this incident alone caused over 2,000 pieces of debris. The second major incident was China’s test of an anti-satellite or ASAT weapon in 2007. This test was meant to demonstrate the capability to destroy a satellite with a kinetic weapon. This test created the largest single debris event in history. To date, nearly 3,400 pieces of debris associated with this event have been cataloged. According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office this debris ranges in size from 5 cm to nearly a meter.

There are currently three agencies that play a primary role in tracking and mitigation of orbital debris that may be hazardous to operational satellites or life and property on Earth, if the debris is large enough upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. The Subcommittee will explore the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Defense, FAA, and FCC in policing orbital debris, what authorities are currently granted by Congress to federal agencies, and how they coordinate these activities.

What: Space Subcommittee Hearing on Space Traffic Management: How to Prevent a Real Life ‘Gravity’

When: Friday, May 9, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. ET

Where: 2318 Rayburn House Office Building – Washington D.C. 20515

Who: The following witnesses will testify:

– Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond – Commander, 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command; and Commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command
– Mr. George Zamka – Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration
– Mr. Robert Nelson – Chief Engineer, International Bureau, Federal Communications Commission
– Mr. P.J. Blount – Adjunct Professor, Air and Space Law, University of Mississippi School of Law
– Mr. Brian Weeden – Technical Advisor, Secure World Foundation

For additional background information about the hearing, please visit the Science, Space, and Technology Committee website.

Hearing Charter

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.