The space – the last frontier – is becoming increasingly crowded. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are now nearly 5,500 satellites in orbit, and that number will only increase in the coming years. Private companies, in particular, are planning to launch communications satellites at an unprecedented pace. That’s why Iridium, OneWeb and SpaceX, three of the biggest players, have jointly launched a guide to orbital safety best practices. So, if you have plans to deploy your own satellite or are just curious about what it takes to do so safely, read on.
The guidelines were prepared by the three companies and are “facilitated by” the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, SpaceX is by far the largest operator of satellites. It has a whopping 2,219 satellites in orbit as part of its Starlink constellation, which dwarfs all others, including NASA (73), the US Air Force (95) and the Russian military (73). OneWeb, another satellite internet operator, is a distant second with 427 satellites in orbit. Iridium, a satellite communications provider, can cover the entire planet with just 75 satellites, although its voice and text calling services have much lower bandwidth requirements than full Internet connections.
In the introduction to the best practices guidelines, the three companies explain their reasoning: They want to anticipate regulations that would restrict them too much. “Given the rapid innovation in the space sector, governments have a responsibility to put in place appropriate regulatory structures that keep pace with and promote this innovation,” explains the report. “To be effective, these regulations must strike the right balance between maintaining sustainable operations in space without stifling innovation or preventing new applications that deliver tangible benefits to the public and governments.” (In other words, they’re eager to keep doing what they’re doing.)
The suggested best practices are divided into four phases: Design Time (A), Pre-Launch and Early Orbit (B), On Orbit (C), and Satellite Disposal (D). Each phase has a number of key practices that satellite operators should ideally adhere to.
At Design Time, the guidelines cover preparing the satellite for a safe launch and time in orbit. They suggest three key practices: “Consider the implications of collision avoidance (CA)” when selecting a job; make sure the spacecraft hardware is up and running; and make sure the software running on the craft and controlling it from the ground is also capable.
For Pre-Launch and Early Orbit, the guidelines are mainly to make sure other space operators know what you’re doing, and not accidentally crash into another satellite in orbit — or worse, a manned spacecraft. The three suggested practices are: Tell other space operators and the global community your launch strategy well in advance, avoid getting close to “manned assets” and partner with a “cataloging” organization to track your launch and early orbit .
Once the satellite is in space, the “On Orbit” guidelines are about keeping it that way. And again, doing it without bumping into things. The best practices are: Keep everyone informed about what you are doing with your satellite; continuous risk assessments to avoid collisions; and if there is a high risk of collision, do something about it.
Finally, once the satellite’s mission is complete, the satellite removal guidelines are about ensuring that it can be safely decommissioned. There is a limited amount of space in orbit, so no dead satellites should be left there. To this end, there is only one best practice: actively and quickly managing the de-orbit of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites reaching the end of their useful mission life.
Of course, having a set of guidelines is very different from having a set of laws for everyone to follow. SpaceX, in particular, has been criticized for the sheer number of satellites it plans to launch (and has launched). Whether this attempt at self-regulation is enough to prevent individual countries from creating an “unmanageable patchwork of incongruous rules” remains to be seen.