Gen. David Thompson: ‘There will be an increasing risk to operate in certain orbits’
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is not too worried at this point that the growth of commercial space activity is creating safety issues. But things could change if space traffic and debris are not managed, said Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force.
Commercial ventures such as space internet constellations and civil activities in low Earth orbit are positive developments, Thompson said in an interview with SpaceNews. The military supports this growth, he said, but would like to see a civilian agency in charge of managing traffic and regulating unsafe activities.
“I would be loathe to limit activity because I think there’s power in the commercial and civil aspects of space that improve our lives and will continue to improve our lives,” said Thompson.
Air Force and Space Force operators at Vandenberg Air Force, California, serve as the nation’s de facto space traffic cops, keeping track of objects in space and warning of potential collisions in orbit. The Department of Defense, however, is not a regulatory agency, Thompson noted.
Collision warning duties are expected to transition to the Department of Commerce by 2024 but there are other issues that a civilian agency should be taking on, Thompson said, such as managing activities so they don’t create hazards, setting guidelines for how satellites should maneuver, or what happens when spacecraft exceed their lifetimes. “How do you dispose of them properly and appropriately in a safe manner?”
What is likely to happen is that there will be “an increasing risk to operate in certain orbits,” he said. So some type of oversight will be necessary, said Thompson.
“Obviously, the DoD wants a voice in that, in terms of what it means to us. We’ll have to play our role, whatever it needs to be, but it’s definitely time for an agency responsible for regulation and regulatory rules and norms to take a more active role, for both the United States but also in dealing with international bodies,” he added.
Congestion in low Earth orbit, for example, could impact the launch windows available for the military to launch satellites to higher orbits. Thompson does’t see that as an immediate problem but one that could worsen over time.
“I’m certainly not worried yet about so much activity so as to severely limit our ability to launch, but we will get to the point if we don’t manage it effectively,” Thompson said.
The military’s space launch planners at the Space and Missile Systems Center do “collision analysis” multiple times leading up to each launch’s final terminal count, SMC said in a statement to SpaceNews.
“The global increase of activities across the space domain creates greater complexities for all types of space operations,” said SMC. “The Launch Enterprise recognizes this and continually works to maximize opportunities while minimizing risks to launch vehicles and spacecraft.”