Collision Avoidance Guideline Gets Big-name Backing

9th Apr 2023
Collision Avoidance Guideline Gets Big-name Backing

Inmarsat and Airbus are among 27 European companies and organizations that have signed an updated ‘best practices’ framework focused on collision avoidance in space. The move for a new collision avoidance guideline was led by The Space Safety Coalition (SSC), an ad hoc coalition promoting responsible space to influence gaps in the government. As a result, the organization has just updated its ‘Best Practices for the Sustainability of Space Operations’ since the first produced in 2019.

Analysts have suggested that in the next decade, over 10,000 new satellites will be launched into space. While this boom is a positive depiction of the future, keeping the space environment safe is of paramount importance, especially as spacecraft orbit in close quarters. Among many other best practices, the SSC included a new ‘Rules of the Road’ (RotR) section about collision avoidance to “address emerging safety and sustainability concerns more proactively in the space environment.”

SSC and its update

The first SSC Best Practices guideline was published in 2019 and honed in on five recommendations, including that spacecraft owners, operators, and stakeholders should exchange information relevant to collision avoidance; the consideration of space sustainability; the focus on safety when designing missions and constellations; spacecraft built in adherence to best practices, focused on easy disposal and improved reliability; the inclusion of space operations that enhance the sustainability of the space environment. Several leading space giants were signatories of the framework, including LeoLabs, Planet, Slingshot Aerospace, Intelsat and more.

With the addition of a few new recommendations, the SSC also highlighted the importance of the new RotR section. Let’s take a look at the main points, according to the guideline:

  • Collision and avoidance maneuvers should be coordinated with other spacecraft operators and implemented, depending on the level of vehicle maneuverability.
  • Operators of non-crewed maneuverable spacecraft should give a wide berth to crewed vehicles when possible
  • Operators of crewed vehicles should communicate their risk tolerance metrics and thresholds publicly
  • Operators of uncrewed and crewed spacecraft should only maneuver if a prior agreement is put in place, or when it has been negotiated between both operators
  • If a potential high-risk conjunction between a maneuverable non-crewed and crewed spacecraft is set to occur, but contact is unable to be made, the operator should attempt an avoidance maneuver that satisfies its stricter risk tolerance levels.
  • Interpretation of RotR rules should be communicated between both operators

See here for more RotR details.

“The SSC’s new guidelines are particularly important given today’s rapidly increasing risk of collisions,” said Dan Oltrogge, SSC founder and administrator. “Best practices spanning all phases of the spacecraft life cycle must keep pace as our use of and reliance upon space ever deepens.”

More needs to be done

While establishing norms in space is a positive step toward creating a sustainable and safe environment in orbit, “it isn’t enough”, according to Inmarsat CEO, Rajeev Suri. “Initiatives like the Space Safety Coalition are an important step towards establishing international best practices and guidelines to protect the space environment…[but] the clock is ticking, and real action is needed. National regulators everywhere should now use their powers of granting market access to require that satellite operators adhere to best practices like those outlined by the Space Safety Coalition and beyond.”

The space industry is a global one, and while governments strive to adopt best practices, there will never be a guarantee that other nations will follow suit. This is evident in several cases, like the most recent Russian anti-satellite test in November 2021 that created 1,500 pieces of debris. While the US pledged to ban anti-satellite tests, the non-legally binding resolution is limited in its impact.

Nevertheless, companies and agencies have put much effort into protecting the space environment, especially in the past few years. In December 2020, NASA released the first iterations of its Spacecraft Conjunction Assessment and Collision Avoidance Best Practices Handbook. The guideline was similar to SSC and focused on maneuverability, tracking, reliability, and the safe disposal of space hardware.

Similarly, ESA also published a set of guidelines in 2021 in the interest of safe close proximity operations.

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