Over the past eight years of the Obama administration, space has become increasingly congested and contested, resulting in a new wave of Pentagon investments and a re-imagining of its space strategy.
Going forward, the Trump administration needs to keep that momentum while also funneling additional energy into the interdepartmental effort to establish international standards of behavior in space, particularly when it comes to managing the growing amount of debris scattered around the Earth’s orbit, said Winston Beauchamp, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space.
“The good news, we’re well postured with respect to the resources and the direction and the programs that we need,” he said after a panel at the Defense One Summit in Washington. The next step, Beauchamp said, is “to develop rules of the road that define norms in behavior so that we don’t have very popular orbits get congested with debris.”
The United States, along with 104 other nations including Russia and China, is a party to the Outer Space Treaty, which created rules against the launch of weapons of mass destruction in space.
“It’s the international equivalent of the parents telling the kids in the back of the station wagon, ‘Don’t touch each other,’” Beauchamp said. However, that treaty, created in the late 1960s, does not reflect many of the challenges that have emerged in the years since. “It’s limited in what it can achieve. And really that’s fine when the only people operating in space were governments and when the number of assets in space was relatively small.”
But the growing commercial opportunities and increasing number of military activities in space has led to an influx of space debris, even in popular orbits, he said. Not all space junk is removable and thus has to be closely monitored. For instance, a Chinese missile launch in 2007 created more than 3,000 pieces of debris, much of which satellites must maneuver around almost a decade later.
“There’s a difference between responsible behavior in space and irresponsible behavior. You have to define what responsible behavior is,” Beauchamp said.
The current plan is to establish technical working groups with industry participants that can help establish norms that are consistent with best business practices, he said. US Strategic Command has taken the lead for Defense Department activities, but eventually the State Department will take the reins and begin working to codify those standards with international partners in bilateral or multilateral agreements.
“Whether they’re bilateral, multilateral, or sort of UN top-down, we want to make sure that those are well established, because nobody benefits if we pollute the space environment,” he said.
How to manage orbital debris has been a growing source of consternation for the military. The recently stood-up Air Force 18th Space Control Squadron currently is responsible for monitoring debris and reporting potential collisions. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., has proposed transferring that responsibility to the private sector, which Bridenstine believes can conduct those activities at a lower cost.
The Defense Department has also made investments into systems that can improve the tracking of debris in space, like the Space Surveillance Telescope that was recently transferred from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to the Air Force.
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