As satellite launch volume grows, new rules and regulations could reduce orbital debris and space collision.
That’s the hope of U.S. Gen. David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations at the U.S. Space Force. The U.S. and other spacefaring nations need to do more to reduce the amount of orbital debris, Thompson said.
During DefenseOne’s State of the Space Force event last week, Thompson called for more rigid regulations to prevent future debris and ensure the military and industry can continue operating its satellites without collisions.
The largest growth area in space isn’t debris, but rather proliferated low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellations made up of hundreds of satellites, such as those being built by SpaceX, OneWeb and the Space Development Agency, he said.
“Within a decade, we will almost certainly see 100,000 objects in orbit. Right now we’re talking about 40,000,” Thompson said.
Once those satellites become inactive, however, they become debris. Current regulations aren’t stringent enough to ensure inactive satellites are removed in a timely manner, which increases the amount of debris active satellites need to avoid on orbit, he added.
“Those timelines are too long and the rules are a little too flexible in terms of preserving the domain,” Thompson said.
“The first thing that we all have to do — not just the Department of Defense, but the United States and the community of nations — is put a set of rules in place that limit the growth of debris and ensures that people … clean up after themselves after their satellites have outlived their usefulness,” he added.
In fact, the Federal Communications Commission last week voted in favor of new rules that would require satellites in LEO to deorbit within five years of end of service, although some lawmakers have questioned the regulatory agency’s authority to do so. Current U.S. regulations require those satellites to deorbit within 25 years of ending operations.
“If we continue on the current pace and trend and don’t put effective standards and norms and controls in place as a community of nations, we will get to the point where it becomes difficult to operate,” Thompson said.
Thompson also voiced support for cleaning up orbital debris, a specialty of commercial companies like Tokyo-based Astroscale. The Space Force has not asked the U.S. Congress for funding to begin removing debris at scale, but it is investing in the underlying technologies through its Orbital Prime initiative.
“We have created relationships with about 125 entrepreneurial companies, academic institutions and others to develop ideas that might foster ways to clean up the debris,” Thompson said.