Originally published: The Hill
BY ERIC INGRAM, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR - 06/22/23 10:00 AM ET
Washington is issuing dire warnings about the escalating risks to American, allied and commercial assets in space.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
In a recent press conference at the American embassy in London, a senior Pentagon official declared that “the United States of America is ready to fight tonight in space if we have to.” This statement, from Brig. Gen. Jesse Morehouse of the US Space Command, underscores the immediate and looming threats that the United States’s foremost space-faring rivals pose today.
Space has quickly become the next flashpoint for conflict, with Moscow and Beijing developing capabilities to chase, catch, jam, blind or destroy Western satellites. As space superpowers augment their arsenals with anti-satellite capabilities, the U.S. is positioning itself to deter escalation by deploying its own orbital defenses.
Simultaneously, the U.S. aims to put forth rules and regulations that prohibit reckless in-space saber-rattling, pierce the shroud of secrecy surrounding adversaries’ orbital antics, and promote the peaceful usage of outer space.
To that end, on May 30, the State Department released its first-ever strategy to foster diplomacy in space. The U.S. intends to “expand space benefits for all humankind” by working with those who “share our democratic values of openness, transparency, adaptability, and the free flow of ideas and information,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a press release.
While the framework asserts that space-related concerns, endeavors and initiatives will receive attention at the highest levels between governments, it falls short of delineating a precise route forward.
Proper outer space governance is pivotal for both national security and our way of life. Attacks on our satellites would blind U.S. armed forces, disrupt weapons systems and endanger national security in numerous other ways. Moreover, they could also cut everyday citizens off from the very conveniences, capabilities and critical infrastructure that define modern life, including GPS, the global financial system, telecommunications, weather forecasts and emergency services.
Space isn’t just contested and competitive — it’s also congested. For every active satellite in space today, there are roughly seven times as many pieces of debris being tracked by the US Space Command. Those are just the known knowns; many more untracked debris pieces are out there, from satellite fragments to specks of paint, which today’s ground-based sensors and radars can’t catalog. These tiny pieces of trash pack a punch when traveling at 17,500 mph.
The growing heap of space junk poses immense risks. In-space collisions can be explosive events, yielding hundreds or even thousands of debris pieces. Those debris can in turn spark more collisions, which threaten to produce a cascading chain of events in which more and more objects keep colliding.
This scenario, known as the Kessler effect, could leave us with a runaway debris problem and unusable key orbits. Fortunately, this is a theoretical problem rather than a real-world one. But past collisions havevery real impacts on today’s space operators, and the possibilities of future impacts — and a Kessler-type scenario, at worst — can often keep us up at night.
The good news is that these dangers, from both unfriendly spacecraft and space debris, can be mitigated by better in-space visibility. Formally known as space domain awareness, this capability promises to help the Pentagon, NASA and companies like SpaceX make sense of the space domain and steer satellites out of harm’s way.
Space domain awareness tops the US Space Command’s wishlist, and rightfully so. It would give the military the ability to spot an unruly neighbor, see where the satellite is going and what it’s doing, and react accordingly.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And in-space awareness wouldn’t just help with deterrence, it would truly unlock “openness, transparency, adaptability, and the free flow of ideas and information” in space. As the State Department writes in its space strategy, “increasing commercial leadership and participation [means] we cannot rely solely on government-to-government diplomacy.”
American space companies are now among the biggest players in low Earth orbit today. The boom in commercial spaceflight activities has proliferated in large part due to startups using innovative and inexpensive technology. To build a system for safer spaceflight, Washington should go one step further than acknowledging companies’ presence in space — our laws, R&D funding and treaties should embrace data-sharing with the private sector and integrate commercial technology into an in-space awareness system.
This won’t be done overnight, but together, the government and private sector can launch, learn and iterate. The government can take advantage of upcoming launches to lift more observational assets into orbit. In a similar vein, government satellites with spare onboard capacity can be fitted with in-space sensors that “see” sideways and above in space, rather than only looking back down on Earth. These sensors will provide new in-space datasets that we can pair with existing ground-based tracking methods, all the while harnessing AI to make the most of this comprehensive data pool. Military and government agencies can use the power of the purse and new contract opportunities to fully back this vision for in-space observation data, to fill critical gaps in our understanding of the celestial domain.
U.S. military readiness in orbit — and the ability of American diplomats to promote peaceful coexistence in space — are at risk if we can’t develop this transparency. Let’s make sure that we’ll never have to go a day without space, and let’s do all that’s possible to avoid a fight tonight, by tapping all the capabilities the U.S. public and private sectors have to offer.
Eric Ingram is co-founder and CEO of SCOUT, Inc., which is enabling a new era of space safety and transparency by offering in-space observation data and services. A commercial spaceflight regulatory expert, Eric sits on the board of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing. He began his space career as an engineer for asteroid-mining pioneer, Deep Space Industries, now part of Bradford Space.