Space Traffic Management – The New Beginning

Oct 10, 2020


We are in the 21st century, and we do come across the term space traffic several times through news as well as social media. But the question is, what does space traffic mean? It refers to all spacecraft (active as well as inactive) and space particles that might be presently orbiting the Earth. Therefore it needs to be managed. Consequently, this paper will discuss selected issues related to Space Traffic Management, including issues related to the launch process and orbital traffic like collision avoidance and the principle of fault in the event of damage in outer space. Also, this article aims to present the framework of space traffic management.

Has space traffic management now become a need of the hour?

Ever since October 1957, the 1st spacecraft was launched into space; there has been a rapid increase of different objects in space. Further, this makes it a matter of concern throughout the globe due to growth over the last decade, there has been in space traffic management. The need for uniform as well as universal rule and regulation for the management of the traffic was felt the same as countries have for the road traffic, therefore international Academy of Astronautics (IAA) a nongovernment organization which can be stated as a "collection of technological and regulatory requirements to facilitate secure access to outer space, outer space operations and a return from outer space to Earth free of interference with physical or radiofrequency."  Space access is no longer just a pioneering tool, but demand for economic growth, risk mitigation, and innovation on Earth. According to a report by NASA around 500,000 non-functional spacecraft, discontinued lance vehicle phases, mission-related debris, and fragmentation debris are travelling with speed up to 17,500 mph, which are enough to damage and destroy the functional satellites in the orbit of the Earth. By this data, it is clear that the amount of traffic present in the space increasing the complication in launching new spacecraft and satellites. Already several things have to be taken into account before launching, but the mismanagement in traffic increases it way more, and the launching window can be limited, so the need to monitor space traffic to prevent accidents merely provides another aspect for consideration. Being one of the key areas for innovation and development; more than 60 nations spend a huge amount of national budget for the satellites and their functioning. So much so that around 10% of the EU's GDP is said to be depended upon the proper functioning and it results generated in Earth. As per scientist observation in the past few years, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of times two space objects have moved closer to each other than the commonly accepted minimum distance as safe. Every debris, which is greater than one centimetre can cause damage to satellites and other space objects, and much of the space debris, is an unregulated high-speed flight. Fatal accidents between the present objects will produce unnecessary debris, thus increasing the risk of collision and jeopardizing future travel in space.

The possible destruction of satellites and other space objects has many negative consequences for science, defence, and communications technology which we rely on for logistical, commercial, and scientific services. In 1996, the French satellite Cerise suffered damage from the wreckage of a French rocket that had been launched ten years earlier, which damaged the spacecraft. In 2009, a redundant Russian satellite killed a working commercial Iridium satellite in a crash, contributing more than 2,000 bits of debris to the established space junk collection. Also, there were cases of incidents between tracked objects, with space debris triggering incidents twice, and a third event involving a part of an operating satellite that had exploded. In the year 2007, China anti-satellite weapon test, which leads to damages to its satellite in the polar region and increases around 35,000 more debris piece nearly one centimetre in size. These kinds of incidents increase the amount of debris and the risk of damaging the functional satellite and space crafts. Many space agencies and private companies both are coming up with ground-breaking solutions to reduce such high risks. The US Department of Defence (DOD) maintains a very detailed list of objects in Earth orbit greater than a softball. NASA is now working with DOD and taking responsibility for the analysis of the satellite system, including orbital debris. The Space Surveillance Network (SSN) currently monitors and catalogues objects between five and ten centimetres in diameter in LEO and up to one meter in geosynchronous orbit.

The debris which is large enough can be used as shields against small pieces but ironically, shielding themselves could become debris, as occurred in March 2017, when a debris shield about 1.5 meters long and weighing 8 kgs. mounted by US astronauts on the International Space Station was lost when it drifted away. This shield has joined the more than 21,000 entities tracked in space. However, it is difficult to lose the frequency of large objects. Despite having an advanced technology system, we need a solution to track the debris which is non-functional currently. For this, we need to develop a data-sharing system, and another alternative might be to establish a coalition of members of all the big space nations that would include data from their countries and serve as an apolitical entity that would address foreign issues.

Though the discussion toward Space Traffic Management (STM) has started the concept of 1967 is operative, and no inter-national set of rules and regulations are present, which are legally binding on countries. In 2006 IAA did a detailed study on STM. Later in 2007, a study was conducted by the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), both the reports had one thing in common that there is lack of a legally binding international set of rules including the lack of obligatory pre-launch warning services, in-orbit manoeuvrings services, space vehicle right-of-way standards, human-transport spacecraft laws, zoning guidelines, debris control and re-entry legislation.


The complexities and future solutions surrounding space traffic illustrate the need to consider space policy as a holistic issue involving cooperative strategies for management. For this, we need to develop a fast as well as comprehensive data sharing system, coordination and we risk heightening global tensions without a way of controlling orbital operations in space. Still, we can manage this by greater international cooperation towards space traffic management from the world.