The world must cooperate to avoid a catastrophic space collision

EDITORIAL 11 August 2021

Governments and companies urgently need to share data on the mounting volume of satellites and debris orbiting Earth.

There’s an awful lot of stuff orbiting Earth, with more arriving all the time. More than 29,000 satellites, pieces of rockets and other bits of debris large enough to track from the ground are circling the planet. Smaller items number in the millions. The Californian company SpaceX alone has launched some 1,700 satellites over the past 2 years as part of its Starlink network, which provides broadband Internet, with thousands more planned. Other companies are also planning such megaconstellations, and more and more nations are launching or plan to launch satellites.

This growing congestion is drastically increasing the risk of collisions in space. At the European Space Agency’s operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, which controls key research spacecraft, hundreds of e-mail alerts arrive each day warning of potential space smash-ups. And, in May, NASA engineers spotted a 5-millimetre-wide hole in one of the International Space Station’s robotic arms, created by a collision with an unknown piece of space junk.

These close calls highlight not only the need to be more thoughtful about what we put into space, but also that it’s well past time the global space community developed a sustainable framework for managing space traffic. Such a move would benefit both the scientists who rely on observations from orbit and humanity as a whole, because satellites are crucial for modern communication and navigation.

History offers some lessons about how to operate safely in newly crowded domains. During the early twentieth century, aviation boomed and pilots ran into congestion in the skies. Air-traffic controllers ultimately developed a system of coordinating between cities and across borders, sharing information about aeroplanes’ locations so that pilots could avoid crashing into one another.

But there are no traffic cops in space, nor international borders with clearly delineated areas of responsibility. To avoid further damage, it’s crucial that satellite operators have an accurate and up-to-date list of where objects are in space. At present, the main global catalogue of space objects is published at by the US Space Command, a branch of the military. The catalogue is the most widely used public listing available, but it lacks some satellites that countries — including the United States, China and Russia — have not acknowledged publicly. In part because of this lack of transparency, other nations also track space objects, and some private companies maintain commercially available catalogues.


Nature 596, 163 (2021)


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