As the space industry becomes more lucrative and low-Earth orbit grows more crowded, concerns increase that bad actors may threaten space assets to gain leverage. Governments are working to advocate responsible space behaviors and avoid a tragedy of the commons scenario. In November 2021, Russia fired an anti-satellite missile at a defunct satellite, which exploded then into more than 1,500 pieces of space junk. This forced the ISS to conduct evasive maneuvers to avoid collision with the debris cloud, and nearly caused a Kessler-effect situation—in which volumes of space debris collide, causing a cascading effect that creates a giant junk cloud. The cloud could eventually encircle the Earth, rendering low orbit unusable. In response to Russia’s ASAT action, the White House banned direct-ascent ASAT weapons testing. Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, the UK, South Korea, Switzerland, and Australia soon followed suit. Increasingly, lawmakers and federal agencies express concern regarding the consequences of space growing more crowded. The ORBITS Act, introduced in the US Senate to categorize and monitor space debris, also promotes removal R&D, provides mitigation guidelines, and requires agencies to improve space traffic management. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration signed an agreement to work together to investigate commercial space mishaps—their first since 2000. The Satellite Industry Association published a paper requesting that the US update the outdated Commercial Remote Sensing Policy to encompass new technologies, such as radio frequency and shortwave infrared sensing. Historically, the Federal Communications Commission’s International Bureau was responsible for licensing satellites transmitting data within the US; the FCC will now split into two offices, the Office of International Affairs and the Space Bureau, to enable better focus and resource allocation. As is the case with all international treaties, the resulting laws are only binding to signing countries. This gives privileges to non-signing parties. Notably, China and Russia have not agreed to eliminate use of ASAT missiles. In fact, Russia has threatened to “strike” satellites aiding Ukraine, and its failure to comply with regulations around space-traffic management could be catastrophic. Even the smallest piece of debris, orbiting at 17,000 miles per hour, can destroy satellites or space stations and disrupt essential helpers to our daily lives, such as GPS or telecommunication services. In the short run, the ORBITS Act may make it difficult for smaller US players to gain a space presence, given the costs of compliance. But if the ORBITS Act–enabled R&D helps us understand ways to quickly and effectively remove debris, space commercialization can proceed at the speed of innovation.
The new Space Race