How Countries Can Collaborate to Manage Space Traffic and Orbital Debris

As more countries and companies enter space, much work must be done to better handle space traffic and orbital debris collaboratively.


Air Date: December 16, 2021

Moderator: Ellen Stofan, Under Secretary for Science and Research, Smithsonian

Featured Guests: Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, Commander, Combined Space Force Component Command, U.S. Space Command, Charity Weeden, Vice President, Global Space Policy and Government Relations, Astroscale U.S.

As technology continues to create innovative pathways for humans to explore space, countries, and companies entering space face an increase in space traffic and orbital debris. Space traffic — which is the awareness of vehicles and objects in space — and orbital debris — which NASA defines as “junk” orbiting the Earth — are two important topics to focus on when discussing space travel.

At the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s fourth annual Space Summit, Major General DeAnna Burt of the U.S. Space Command and U.S. Space Force and Charity Weeden, vice president of global space policy and government relations at Astroscale U.S., offered their insights on guidelines for space traffic and debris and future plans to look forward to.

Guidelines Must Be Created and Enforced for How Companies Operate in Space

From Major General Burt’s perspective, operating in space isn’t much different than the air and sea domains on Earth. First, she calls for entities to find a way to separate the responsibilities of the military versus those of civilian or commercial entities.

“It's no different than the air, land, or sea domains, and that you have civilian entities that have set up rules of behavior and norms for everyone to operate,” she said. “Then the military operates inside those [norms] in times of war to do that in a safe manner.”

“If the U.S. wants to see norms and guidelines established globally for operators and to influence those, the first thing that should come to mind is looking domestically [at] what is established and effective here,” added Weeden.

Commercial Innovation Is Needed to Manage Orbital Debris

According to Weeden, there are 27,000 objects that we can track in space and half a million others that could impact operations — not including the flourishing space industry getting into orbit in numbers that have never been seen before.

“The Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House is currently seeking inputs to prioritize debris mitigation and remediation activities here,” Weeden said. “Commercial innovation needs to be front and center.”

However, said Weeden, there are a few key items missing to support commercial space environment management (SEM) efforts.

“First is policy development that assigns roles and responsibilities and authorities for such missions,” she said. “The second item is … increased in focused investment in space environment management research and development. Third, commercial operators and service providers need financial incentives that reward clean space and to relate in and risky space.”

Finally, Weeden emphasized the importance of establishing international legal and liability certainty for commercial operators and providers of space environment management.

Increased Space Traffic Presents Numerous Opportunities

While there are plenty of challenges and logistical issues involved in space travel, both Maj. Gen. Burt and Weeden see many positive opportunities as the U.S. collaborates with international partners.

“I'm hopeful … because of the relationships I see growing every day under the leadership of the United States Space Command and how we continue to foster those bilateral and multilateral relationships with many nations around the world that are spacefaring,” said Maj. Gen. Burt.

“I'm very excited seeing private space flight … [and] civil astronauts go into space,” Weeden noted. “We need to make sure that this continues and that's because space is a domain of commerce now. Investors have committed nearly $31 billion over the past 10 years.”