Space traffic management is as difficult as you’d expect

There is no space traffic management. Still. “But now, all of a sudden, we really need it,” said Jason Held, CEO of Saber Astronautics.

In the past year alone, the number of active satellites has almost doubled to 7,600. Estimates are for 40,000 by 2030. And there are hundreds of thousands of scrap and debris.

“The recent cases of space junk landings in Australia are a case in point,” says Held. “Whose authority and responsibility is it to pursue? Who determines whether it is an attack or an accident? is it civil is it military Who is responsible?”

Saber Astronautics is an aerospace engineering organization with offices in the United States and Australia. They’re trying to address the pressing issues of tracking who owns what in orbit, what it does, where and why.

“There are all these questions,” says Held. “What happens when things accidentally collide? This is a problem for space traffic management. But that’s different from the military field, which is about stopping people from doing lewd things on purpose.”

One problem is the distinction between the two.

Space is not free of regulation, but it is certainly not flush with it either.

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The Australian subsidiary of Saber Astronautics operates the Responsive Space Operations Center (RSOC) based in the Lot 14 district of Adelaide and a research and development laboratory in Sydney.

“We’re using all the tools we have at RSOC and building a cadre of people who are trained to use them,” Held says. “We have Australian personnel who have been working with the US for some time and are now leading space domain awareness and space transport exercises for the Pacific region.”

The next major international exercise will take place in November.

The US subsidiary of Saber Astronautics operates an RSOC in Boulder, Colorado and an integration unit that works with the US Department of Defense in Colorado Springs.

The Sprint Advanced Concept Training (SACT) tests bring together companies and government agencies in the US, Europe and Australia to determine the cause and effect of real and simulated space “incidents”. And how best to respond to it.

“It started about ten years ago as a US Department of Defense war game,” says Held. “As commercial space is emerging, it now has an unclassified side that we are participating in.”

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It could be a solar flare. A satellite collision. A cyber attack. Or a chaotic combination of events.

“The way it’s done, it’s like a hackathon,” he says. “It’s about people finding problems immediately and trying new things immediately. The catchphrase is: ‘Use is okay – next time just suck less’.”

About 200 people from 20 different companies and research groups are involved in the Pacific component alone. And four different armies.

traffic jam in space

“Some have radars. Some have telescopes. Some have software. Others have combinations of the above,” says Held. “There are big companies and small companies. You have global primes working side-by-side with crisp little startups just trying to make their mark.”

The problem is data.

There’s just so much of it.

But it still doesn’t cover everything, anywhere, anytime.

And all in different formats, with different rates and with different degrees of reliability.

That’s why we rarely know the exact position of a particular satellite, for example.

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It can occasionally receive a radar fix. But unless it broadcasts its position openly, as landplanes and ships do, its orbit is often a matter of probability.

And it’s not just about tracking satellites.

“Anyone can look up at the sky and observe a space object,” says Held. “But trying to put that into context is quite difficult.”

Could Space Weather Cause Undesirable Behavior? Bad mission design? Chance? Or a malicious act?

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The Australian Bureau of Meteorology Space Weather Center dashboard

“The most sophisticated piece of machine learning we have is used to find out the cause of damage to a spacecraft,” he adds.

It identifies the probability that an error is due to a cosmic ray, solar storm, debris impact, or hack.

“You can use machine learning to detect changes in a spacecraft’s behavior pattern, and that’s important — especially if you’re in the military and you want to find out if someone is drifting toward your object, accidentally or intentionally.”

The exercise aims to find the best way to prevent a disaster. No matter how “out there” the idea sounds.

“We try 100 possibilities and see which performed best. And then everyone learns together.”