We often think of space as a big, empty void, except for the occasional planet, moon or star. But in reality, it’s getting dangerously crowded up there.
More than 20,000 pieces of space debris larger than four inches fly around the planet at blistering speeds of 15,000 to 20,000 mph. Perhaps more concerning are the estimated 600,000 even smaller objects that could still cause significant destruction and devastation. Remember, a lethal bullet is less than four inches long.
This scenario presents a serious concern: It takes only one collision to wreak havoc on our satellite systems. Indeed, a significant portion of existing space debris resulted from just two explosive collisions in space.
Amid the sea of space debris, there are more than 800 operational American satellites, many critical to U.S. national security, communications, earth observations and weather forecasting, public safety, GPS and other vital activities. These devices are the magnificent result of billions of dollars of public and private investment, and efforts must be taken to protect them.
As space activity flourishes and companies begin launching constellations of thousands of satellites, the Trump administration recognizes the dangerous condition of our congested space environment and is taking long-overdue action.
On Monday, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 3, America’s first comprehensive space traffic management policy. As Vice President Mike Pence previewed during the National Space Symposium in April, the directive states that the Commerce Department should be the new lead civil agency for interfacing with the private sector on space situational awareness — sharing the available tracking data about all those objects in orbit and characterizing the state of the space environment — and space traffic management, which entails planning and coordinating space operations.
The new directive emphasizes safety, stability and sustainability — foundational elements to successful space activities. Further, the president ordered Commerce to lead an interagency effort to establish best practices, technical guidelines, standards and risk assessments to preserve the space environment and prevent on-orbit collisions.
The president’s directive also charges Commerce to develop a data-sharing construct with private operators. The department will engage with industry to better understand the needs of our new mission, possible applications and the potential for public-private collaborations that stimulate novel commercial uses of space data.
To remain the flag of choice for commercial space activity, it is imperative that the United States lead this effort and enhance U.S.-based space activities. Future commercial activities in space — journeys to Mars, asteroid mining and space tourism — will depend upon companies’ access to accurate and usable data that manages traffic and protects their equipment.
The department’s newly expanded space team and plethora of commercial space-related functions present the ideal environment for this responsibility. Unlike in past generations, activity in space is becoming largely commercial. Accordingly, Commerce is uniquely positioned to partner with industry on development of space traffic standards and best practices.
We are the friend-of-business agency. We work hand in hand with multiple industry sectors. And Commerce fully understands the value of public-private collaboration. Perhaps most importantly, our mind-set is that of a facilitator of safe commerce, not a typical, old-fashioned regulator. We have a new mantra: Government must engage not just in oversight but also insight and foresight.
The department also houses a diverse array of invaluable experts. Our new Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise Administration will coordinate the involvement of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which manages federal spectrum use for space communications. In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a proven track record of working with industry to conduct research and define scientific standards for business needs.
Moreover, Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration already oversees the country’s largest operational civil satellite fleet and provides input to current space situational awareness and space traffic management functions as the world’s authoritative resource for timely and accurate space environmental monitoring. And our International Trade Administration frequently assists companies with trade-promotion economic analyses.
Commercial activity and congestion in space will only increase. By 2022, those 800 American satellites in space will increase to an estimated 15,000. As companies launch massive satellite constellations, the risk of collision damage becomes more severe. Even a small piece of space “junk” could trigger a celestial-size pinball game — a chain reaction leading to incalculable damage.
This threat is why President Trump’s announcement comes at such a crucial time in history. Commerce is ready to get to work.
Wilbur Ross is the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.