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Meaningful regulation based on orbital carrying capacity is essential

We rely on satellite communications for so many things, many of which operate in the background so seamlessly that it can be easy to lose sight of how dependent humanity has become on space. The cellphone in your hand could scarcely function were it stripped of the satellite connections that enable its GPS and time-keeping capabilities. There’s also navigation for ships and aircraft, weather monitoring, television signals, emergency response, business systems, land and sea stewardship, space sciences, internet connectivity among others.

The list is quite long — and growing.

In fact, space provides an absolutely essential vantage point from which to monitor what’s happening on our own home planet. Climate change is forcing us to look closely at the myriad of ways our planet is changing. Being able to measure and observe Earth in its entirety is something for which satellites are particularly well suited.

However, to ensure we have access to learn and act on the discoveries we make from space, we must first get in the habit of protecting it. In fact, it’s high time we stop the degradation of space caused by decades of debris in orbit.

“If we don’t do this, and do it soon, we risk losing space,” says Amy Mehlman, vice president of Government Affairs and Stakeholder Relations at E-Space. “This includes not only managing the current debris environment and the growing amount of debris that is being created by these pieces colliding with each other, but ensuring that future activity in these already crowded orbits does not exacerbate the problem. Left unmanaged, collisions and the resulting debris clouds could make it all but impossible to launch more satellites.

“Think about that: After all we’ve learned about our polluting Earth and the resulting climate crisis, we’re now in danger of destroying space,” she says. “Meaningful change in the form of regulation and accepted industry safety standards has to take place alongside the increase in planned satellite network launches.”

Beneficial regulation

Few people today think seatbelts and the many other safety devices found on modern cars are a bad idea. But in 1965 when consumer watchdog Ralph Nader raised the alarm in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, many thought he was nuts. In this case, change happened quickly, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved over time: In large part due to his efforts, Congress enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966.

A more recent example is with single-use plastic. Worldwide, an estimated one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute while up to five trillion plastic bags are used every year. Lack of regulation has us drowning in plastic, but change is taking place. This is true on the local level — where places like Boulder, Colorado and Mexico City have recently banned single-use plastic bags to countries like Rwanda and Bangladesh where they’ve been banned for years.

“Some would have us believe all regulation is bad, but there are plenty of examples where reasonable laws and oversight have helped save us from ourselves,” Mehlman says.

In space, lax regulation has opened the door to large constellations of unsafe satellites being launched into low-Earth orbit with scant regard for the consequences. As many have pointed out, the potential for collisions grows with each new tranche of satellites that goes up, although it’s not all about the number of spacecraft. More important to consider is the orbital carrying capacity — or how much a particular orbit can support before the risks become unmanageable.

Orbital carrying capacity (OCC) provides the metric for us to understand how much space is actually in space. In simple terms, we define the total area in space, then define the mass of each object in space (such as satellites) multiplied by its surface area — or cross-sectional area — times the number of total objects in that orbit and come out with a defined OCC that is safe.

“The importance of this metric is that it gives us a common playbook to work from,” Mehlman says. “If everyone is reading from a different playbook, space will indeed be under grave threat.”

In many ways, satellite design is still in its infancy. Much of how some “modern” satellites look and operate isn’t all that different from the ones launched decades ago.

“Addressing the orbital debris problem is certainly something we can tackle with globally acceptable regulation,” Mehlman says. “But the satellites themselves also need a big update. A new type of satellite, such as the ones we’re creating at E-Space, can be designed to mitigate the risk of collision in the first instance.”

E-Space plans to accomplish this with satellites that are lower in mass with significantly smaller cross-sectional areas and other attributes geared toward sustainability.

It's past time to confront the issue of space debris before it’s too late, Mehlman says.

“The orbits close to Earth simply cannot continue to safely support all of these new objects being placed in them without greater control over the environment itself,” she says. “Acting now, before something cataclysmic happens, is simply another version of demanding seatbelts in cars before more people get killed.”

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is content strategist and editorial director at E-Space. Based in Denver, he's a longtime journalist who's been involved with the satellite industry for over a decade.