The NASA-commissioned study was done by the Science International Applications Corp., a Tysons Corner, Va.-based provider of government tech support.
“In this decade, a new focus has been appropriately made on the defense and protection of spacecraft to ensure the continued flow of information to and from space,” SAIC said in a summary of its findings circulated during the final week of 2016. “Just as there is risk to spacecraft that must be mitigated through defense and protection, there is risk to spacecraft because of the possibility of unintended collisions and physical interference from space objects in intersecting orbits. The likelihood of such events is low, but the consequences can be high, especially in cases involving crewed spacecraft.”
The study doesn’t make a recommendation on which agency would be best to oversee orbital issues, though the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation have been put forth in the past as possibilities. Such an agency would help manage traffic issues related to U.S. spacecraft and interests, while simultaneously tracking international crafts that pose any possible problems.
The study did lay out a number of other procedural recommendations including the codification of “best practices, guidelines, and standards” that relate to orbital issues.
It urges U.S. leadership in matters related to international space-traffic issues and recommends “data-sharing relationships with international owner-operators and partners.”
The study stressed that space traffic safety should be kept in balance with “interests of space commerce.” Commercial spaceflight companies also will like the recommendation of a “business approach” to orbital-management issues that simultaneously prioritizes cost-efficiency and innovation.
The study also seems to suggest certain limits to the supervising agency’s mandate, while protecting its ability to supervise without fear of excessive legal exposure.
“A civil agency should be provided with appropriate liability indemnification, and at this time it should not have authorities to dictate real-time operational decisions (such as) mandating a collision avoidance maneuver,” the study said. “The civil agency will be required to develop strong inter-agency processes and procedures (and) strong consideration must be given to facility and personnel security requirements.”