More than 50,000 satellites could be in orbit in the next ten years, according to the Washington Post, and the question of who should have the authority to direct traffic in space is being debated. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) recently put out a report addressing this topic.
Sean O’Keefe, former Administrator of NASA and one of the authors of the report, explained that space traffic management is such an important issue right now because of the large increase in space traffic expected to occur within the next decade. The number of active satellites from commercial companies, nation states and others will probably accelerate at a rate of about 1,200 to 1,500 a year.
With this increased traffic comes an increased risk of collisions. “We’ve already seen enough instances of this to suggest this is not just a hypothetical,” O’Keefe stated.
The NAPA report makes the case that the authority to regulate space traffic should go to the Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce. “The idea is to have the Department of Commerce, in their role as the Office of Space Commerce, interacting with the widening range of industry players that are out there [and] the nation states that are involved,” said O’Keefe. The connections the agency already has would help it coordinate with agencies of other governments, and companies around the world.
A request was made to Congress to appropriate a minimal amount to set up a whole-of-government operation for space traffic management, as per Space Policy Directive-3, according to O’Keefe. However, Congress deferred until the NAPA study was conducted. Now, O’Keefe and the rest of the panel are urging Congress to move forward, considering, “if anything, the risk is getting higher and higher each day.”
There is not yet a central organization in charge of coordinating space traffic globally, so the Office of Space Commerce could fill that role. “This is a global phenomenon,” O’Keefe said, “and we can either take the option to lead that, or end up in a position where we’ve got to accommodate what everybody else is doing in what is really shaping up to be a Wild West kind of atmosphere up there.”