A growing amount of space debris has pushed the industry well past the point where operators simply can rely on the “big sky theory” to protect their satellites and those of others, said Andrew D'Uva, president of Providence Access Co., a consulting firm that focuses on security issues for satellite and network operators. As a result, satellite operators should track their own spacecraft and coordinate planned maneuvers in advance with “trusted, reliable and technically astute” organizations, such as the Space Data Association, even if not legally required to do so, D’Uva said.
“Preventing the accumulation of new space debris by planning and conducting operations safely and responsibly yields maximum benefit,” D’Uva said. “This requires limited coordination between operators rather than the historical independent action.”
The high-value satellites in geostationary orbit roughly 36,000 kilometers above the earth should be of particular concern to operators, D’Uva said.
“A collision in the geostationary orbital belt would permanently imperil trillions of dollars of commerce and potentially strand investments in space assets by making this scarce orbital resource financially infeasible for use,” D’Uva said. The key lies in the operators’ ability to perceive the environmental hazards and act appropriately to avoid collisions. "It is far better to have one large inoperable satellite hulk than an explosion that creates a large debris field,” D'Uva explained.
D’Uva, who describes himself as an attorney and a “satellite geek,” heads his Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm to aid satellite and network operators in strategy, mission assurance and security issues.
Given the complicated legal and political challenges posed by space governance, satellite operators should not rely on governments to solve the emerging issue of space debris, D’Uva said. Instead, operators should take reasonable actions now by acting in their self-interest to preserve their satellites, he added.
By doing so, the risk of space debris can be a “manageable challenge” for satellite operators and launch service providers, D’Uva said.
A looming threat that is drawing concern from D’Uva is the limited use of “kinetic, anti-satellite technologies” by the Chinese and American governments.
“While this is a government issue, I’d rather see a norm emerge that generating these kinds of debris-generating kinetic effects in space are off the table in the same way we have concluded not to deploy nuclear weapons in space,” D’Uva said.
Another risk comes from so-called microsatellites, also known as “cubesats,” D’Uva said.
“Microsatellites are of emerging concern since they may not be designed to include maneuver capability and could become numerous pieces of long-lived space debris, particularly in low orbits,” D’Uva said. “We also need to consider how to de-orbit microsatellites once they fail or reach the end of mission life.”
About the author: Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband and hosted payloads.
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