Regulation Must Keep Up with Novel Space Technology, Experts Say

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Panelists at the Satellite 2023 conference noted that the relationship between government and industry when it comes to space is still a “paradigm from yesteryear.”

Regulation and standards are imperative to the success of novel space technology and activities, government and industry officials said on a Wednesday panel at the Satellite 2023 conference.

The panelists noted that there are no standardized processes to authorize and supervise private sector activities in space. Furthermore, the existing regulation and space architecture is too outdated to handle issues arising from novel space technology and activity.

“Our imaginations are capable of conceiving of a really incredibly complex, vibrant, internationally driven future for our space activities, but I think when we look at the way we regulate how the government interacts with commercial sector, I think we’re still trapped in a paradigm from yesteryear,” said Richard DalBello, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Space Commerce. “We need to start reimagining what regulation looks like and what that boundary between the government and the commercial sector is going to work like in the future.”

The panelists asserted that regulation must address several new capabilities that will change the future of space, such as in-space manufacturing to help overcome the limitations of bringing what is needed to space. That manufacturing will likely be robotic and automated, but could also use artificial intelligence. 

“It actually creates more interesting regulation issues—if you have a problem, if you lose a bolt and it goes wandering off and actually hits somebody else at 25,000 miles an hour, whose responsibility is that? How do you do cleanup?,” Scott Stapp, vice president of capabilities and all-domain integration for the space systems sector at Northrop Grumman, said. 

Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, noted another manufacturing challenge for industry and government consideration, adding that as technologies are rapidly evolving, industry and government must work together. 

“When we service or assemble or manufacture in space, we’re dealing with another spacecraft,” Bruno said. “We’re basically servicing one to one. That exchange ratio, in terms of launch and the breadth of that servicing, isn’t practical.” 

He explained that a “last mile vehicle” that can service multiple space-based objects is needed.

“The reason they can’t is because the spacecraft has a limited amount of energy on it because this is a physics driven problem. So this is where launch needs to be a part of that mission,” Bruno said.

According to some of the panelists, nuclear power and propulsion could present another challenge.

“[If] you have countries that are going to use that in [low-Earth orbit] assets, if you have an uncontrolled deorbit, you run the risk of having it land in your country,” Stapp said. “There are not as many international agreements as like in the high seas, or in air…we’re going to have to seriously think about and get agreement on all those implications, because it transits every nation’s airspace, city space, every single day, and the controllability [of] that is very, very limited.”

DalBello added that there needs to be improvements with space situational awareness. 

“We’re pretty good at something that we need to be consistently excellent at,” he said. “Consistently excellent means you can tell an airplane, when and what else to fly and where to land; pretty good at something is you can give somebody a warning that something might happen. And so the difference between those is profound.”

Meanwhile Brien Flewelling, chief SSA architect at ExoAnalytic Solutions, noted that data is imperative to space activity and technology, and more data needs to be collected in order to ensure increased safety. He stated that increasing the amount of measurements can help answer additional questions or uncertainty that may arise. 

“We need to be able to update the models that we build our predictions off of faster than the systems we’re observing can change what they’re doing,” Flewelling said.

Randy Repcheck, deputy director for the Office of Strategic Management within the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, noted that one of the challenges for regulating novel space activities is the very fact that they are novel: “we don’t know what we’re gonna get, so we can lay out the regulations or process to put it in place, but we can’t be perfectly clear [about] what’s going to be the requirement every time because, by definition, we don’t know.”

Repcheck noted that it will be important to have both mandatory standards and industry voluntary consensus standards to help address this issue. 

“The place of voluntary standards are where it affects really only the economics of the situation. Where it affects life or common use or the closing of a domain, that’s not adequate,” Bruno said. “There needs to be regulation that tells us what those standards are because we all share it together, or the consequences are simply too high.”

Having data standards is important for location identification and tracking and the data should evolve as the technology evolves, according to the panelists.

“You have to make the data work, you have to update your data strategy, you have to react to the evolving technologies and behaviors that you see” Flewelling said.

Bruno noted that government should strive to be business literate as it is working on regulation, so as to not stifle competition. At the same time, he argued that the public sector should be investing in and awarding companies that are financially sound, which could be accomplished by asking for such information in requests for proposals.

But the U.S. cannot resolve the challenges on its own, as the panelists noted that international norms or basic safety standards are important to help make space safe for everyone, and these need to be established. 

“Technology is advancing significantly faster than the policy and regulations,” Stapp said. “How do you do conflict avoidance? We do great FAA stuff in our own country, but once you go into unregulated parts of the world it gets different, it gets tougher. Space is right now a world domain.”

Flewelling noted that “scaled, uncoordinated maneuvers throughout space will challenge all parts of how this stuff works.” He explained that while some have suggested artificial intelligence as a solution, this model is not well trained and will pose regulatory challenges.

Bruno added that while some are discussing AI and autonomous maneuvers, the spacecrafts do not currently have sensors on them to autonomously avoid an object. Instead, “they are dependent upon uploading an entire catalog of objects from the ground periodically in every single spacecraft. And then that spacecraft will go off and make decisions for itself.” Bruno stated this also poses the issue of how often this data should be updated, when the objects are traveling at 25,000 miles per hour and are nearly passing each other every few minutes.