Global coalition sets new guidelines for avoiding space collisions

Cascading satellite collisions could make the sky look like "a snow globe within a couple of hours of sunrise or sunset."
Chris Young
An artist's impression of space debris.
An artist's impression of space debris.

EvgeniyShkolenko / iStock 

Scientists are increasingly worried about the overcrowding of Earth's orbit.

SpaceX has launched swarms of satellites into low Earth orbit. They will soon be joined by Amazon's Project Kuiper satellite constellation, which will be launched thanks to the "largest commercial procurement of launch vehicles in history."

In a bid to mitigate the risks of having so many satellites in orbit, the Space Safety Coalition (SSC) has updated its “Best Practices for the Sustainability of Space Operations” document this week, a press statement reveals.

The document now has a new section called "rules of the road" to decrease the rising risk of collisions in space.

New guidelines for space safety and collision prevention

The SSC's document was amended as a direct reaction to the rising risk of collisions in space. In the SSC's statement, Dan Oltrogge, SSC founder, and administrator, said, "The SSC’s new guidelines are particularly important given today’s rapidly increasing risk of collisions. Best practices spanning all phases of the spacecraft life cycle must keep pace as our use of and reliance upon space ever deepens."

The original document was released in 2019, the same year the SSC was founded. The organization is a coalition of 48 commercial and government-owned organizations focused on improving the safety and sustainability of the space industry.

The new guidelines build on existing rules around space operations. They suggest that spacecraft operators freely exchange information regarding potential collisions and that collision avoidance maneuver technologies should be a prerequisite for new spacecraft. Though the SSC's guidelines aren't enforceable by law, they serve as a guideline for best practices in space. Some would argue that these guidelines should be strictly enforced.

What would happen if a large collision occurred in space?

To date, no massive collision has occurred in orbit. However, scientists warn that the possibility of such an event occurring is becoming increasingly likely.

For example, the International Space Station (ISS) has had to carry out a number of collision avoidance maneuvers to avoid Russian space debris let loose by an anti-satellite weapon test last year.

In an interview with IE, Dr. Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Canada, explained how the massive amount of satellites in orbit could cause a cascading destructive effect known as Kessler syndrome. Kessler syndrome describes a scenario in which a collision in space would create many shards of space debris that would, in turn, make more collisions increasingly likely.

Lawler told IE that these pieces of debris would be almost impossible to remove from orbit as a cleanup operation would be akin to "collecting bullets". The effect could leave the sky like a "snow globe within a couple of hours of sunrise or sunset."

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