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Right-of-way laws for space traffic are being debated by the space community

The expanding number of satellites in the orbit has prompted calls for official “right of way” rules to be developed, while there is no agreement on what those regulations should be or how they should be formed. Numerous close encounters of satellites in recent times, aggravated in some cases by conflicts or communications outages between satellite operators, highlight the current lack of rules and the necessity for them to be developed as megaconstellations proliferate.

The regulatory framework for right of way is, please don’t crash your satellite, and especially don’t crash it into someone else,” Ruth Stilwell, who serves as the executive director in charge of the Aerospace Policy Solutions, stated during a panel discussion at Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Conference on September 16.

She believes that a global “uber authority” to manage space traffic and coordinate satellite maneuvers is unrealistic. A self-organized chain of satellite operators with agreed-upon norms for establishing which satellite has the right of way is an alternative.

Agreements between satellite providers have already made some headway on this issue. NASA and SpaceX inked an agreement in March that required SpaceX to relocate its satellites if they came too close to a NASA spaceship.

Bilateral agreements are both vital and difficult, according to Stilwell. While the terms of those agreements are effective amongst operators, they “don’t generate a standard across the community, so we require more visibility into readiness and desire to achieve that standard so we may self-organize.”

She compared it to how pedestrian traffic is self-organized, with individuals giving way to the right when somebody approaches. However, in an international context, like an airport, this may not work when others are accustomed to providing room to the left. “We have right-of-way notions and safety standards, but they all hinge on having enough understanding about each other,” she explained. “A realistic expectation about what the other players will do, as well as knowledge of their health, ability, and capability.”

Satellite operators are currently figuring out what kind of priority criteria should be in a position to identify who would maneuver if two spacecraft were able to do so at the same time. According to David Goldstein, senior guidance, navigation, and control engineer at the SpaceX Company, one such guideline would require satellites to raise their orbits to maneuver around spacecraft in functioning orbits they’re traveling through.

Maneuvers cost satellite operators money since they use up propellant, which reduces their lifespan and may cause service interruptions. This could provide a disincentive for satellite operators to act, pushing the other operator to relocate its satellite. “It may provide an incentive for the others to act irresponsibly in order to avoid those expenses. It’s another reason why establishing behavioral norms is so essential,” noted Zack Donohew, who is a scholar in residence at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. He advocated for developing ways to punish bad actors through “social disapproval.”

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