In late April 2020, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to update its rules about satellites and orbital debris, so that satellite companies seeking licences and access to the U.S. satellite market must disclose more safety information like quantifying collision risk, the probability of disposing of spacecraft successfully and the risk associated with satellites re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
They deferred decisions on more controversial proposals which would tighten up orbital debris rules. These proposals were applauded by space safety advocates but rebuked by the U.S. satellite industry. Critics said these rules could have made it more attractive to launch satellites from other countries around the world, instead of the U.S.
Professor Anna Moore, Director of ANU InSpace, asked ANU Instrumentation Scientist and InSpace Mission Specialist, Dr. Doris Grosse, who specialises in adaptive optics for space debris tracking, her thoughts on how we can effectively regulate dangerous space debris and what these changes may mean to the Australian market.
Changing the rules
Imposing regulations in space is generally a good thing. Just because there is a huge economic potential, does not mean that anybody should irresponsibly give spaceflight a go, just because they can.
History tells us this reckless exploitation has happened in many new economies and resource environments. We see this today on Earth, with instances of fracking, oil drilling, and coal mining.
The difference between space and these Earth environments is Earth is easier to manage, easier to reach and humans can act reasonably quickly to control damage once they have figured out that something has gone wrong. The space environment is harder to access, harder to manage and not self-recovering once something happens. Stricter regulations are desperately needed in space.
We have already seen companies move abroad to avoid existing regulations and rulings and some have even been fined for unapproved satellite launches. This tells us any new regulations must be less expensive for companies than the consequences of launching elsewhere, or illegally. Companies need incentives to stick to stricter safety regulations.
In an ideal world, these regulations would be developed by a global institution and would incorporate advice from all stakeholders across the world, so that everyone could have input. This is not our current reality and global organisations tend to not have enough influence as industry advisers and do not have legislative power.
New regulations in the U.S. to mitigate the dangers of space debris, could create a new opportunity for the Australian satellite and space industry to build a sustainable model. Australian companies need to avoid irresponsible and unregulated satellite launches. As a national industry, we can seize the long-term opportunity to proactively endorse existing safety regulations and progress the development of new regulations for a sustainable and robust industry in the long-term. It’s an opportunity to create an innovative and safe industry that will be seen around the world as a vital, collaborative partner.
In order for Australia to follow this opportunity, there needs to be incentives to keep companies from running off to less-regulated, cheaper foreign launch sites. What those economical, political and societal incentive mechanisms are, is up to our entire industry and government.
Now is the time
Once a satellite economy is established, it is hard to get everyone convinced to change for the better. In the long run, the industry will not be as sustainable, safe or flexible.
The Australian space industry is new enough to not have the outdated habits of more mature markets. Now is our opportunity to follow a more environmentally progressive path that makes our space future sustainable and our regulations more adaptable to keep space safe for everyone.