As activity in space increases, so do near-misses.
Earth’s orbits are becoming increasingly crowded with government and commercial satellites and other technology-driving elements, plus heaps of problematic space debris.
This poses many complex challenges, but to the National Security Council’s Director for Space Policy Audrey Schaffer, it also presents a meaningful chance for the United States to help chart a path towards a global space traffic management system before it’s too late.
“When you look at the changes in the number of space objects that are anticipated to be on orbit in the next 10 years, it is an exponential shift,” she explained Tuesday during the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Maryland. “And the system that we have today is just really not capable, it will not be capable of handling the traffic that we see in 10 or 15 years.”
Though policies and proposals have been prepared in the past, a single, overarching traffic-cop-like entity for space does not exist. Governments accounted for the majority of space-based exploration in previous decades, but more recently there’s been accelerated growth and change within the space industry, and an explosion of commercial and private activity beyond Earth. Now, commercial satellites near-misses with other spacecraft are much less of a rarity.
Schaffer serves as the lead for national security space policy matters within the Executive Office of the President, and the lead for space policy on the National Security Council staff. She advises President Joe Biden on military, intelligence, civil and commercial space policies and strategies.
In her view, “you've got these incredible capabilities coming out of the private sector” to fuse data with government and private-sector sources, as well as analytical tools to provide “the kinds of space traffic management services that, frankly, are urgently needed.” To design a system that can hold up to all the innovation that could emerge over the next century, she noted, America will need to engage in robust partnerships across industry—and with other nations.
“Personally, I see an incredible opportunity to bring together all of these different actors and entities who have been playing in this space, and to have the United States take a leadership role, along with U.S. industry and internationally to kind of create that system for the future,” Schaffer said.