Outer Space is getting more and more congested and contested. Governmental and private, scientific and commercial as well as civilian and military space activities expand in an unknown speed. Starting with a US-Soviet space race, we now see more than 70 countries operating their own satellites. Furthermore a global space economy has developed, which now amounts to more than 350 billion Euros annually. It is expected to reach 1 trillion Euros annually by 2040.
A space business sector has thus developped, which comprises upstream (satellites, launchers, operations) and downstream (services, applications) in more and more countries through large, mid-cap, SME and startup companies. Space assets have become critical infrastructure and therefore need particular protection. This, however, does also lead to a “securitization” of space activities, meaning that security considerations are getting stronger and stronger. It is mirrored in the growing use of space for military purposes and the estbalishment of space commands and space forces in some countries. Also the threat of deliberately disturbing space activities through jamming, spoofing or blinding increases. In addition to that, the emergence of operating mega-constellations of satellites with thousands or even tens of thousands of space objects is becoming a reality. Together with the still unresolved problem of space debris, the congestion of the orbits around the Earth increases further. In this situation, we have to imagine a new way of using outer space.
We have to establish Space Traffic Management (STM). This will be a huge technological, economical and diplomatic challenge – the biggest challenge for spaceflight in this decade. If we do not start acting now, we might face by the end of the decade, what we are facing in climate policy today, it is that we reach tipping points, which make us lose control of the (space) environment. Space Traffic Management (STM) is a complex, multifacetted task, comprising an enormous breadth of disciplines and actors. It can be structured in three distinct aspects: diplomatic, economical and technological.
These are discussed in the following:
1) The diplomatic aspect of STM: Space law has so far concentrated on setting the status of outer space and the actors in space. STM will considerably change the focus, in that it requires the establishment of rules of behaviour in outer space. This completely new approach is a new paradigm for regulating space activities and will require completely new formats of rule-development, transparency-building and concrete traffic control. Orientation can be given by international institutions as the Interntional Tlecommunications Union (ITU) or the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
2) The economical aspect of STM: If setting up STM fails, the target of the 1 trillion global space economy in 2040 will not be achievable and, to the contrary, business opportunities will decline. STM itself is also a driver for space business in that it offers huge opportunities for companies in providing services to space operators. This growing market also provides splendid opportunities for startups.
3) The technological aspect of STM: Organising the traffic of thousands or even tens of thousands of space objects travelling with the speed of 30000 km/h is extremely complex and difficult. Data provision and management, collision avoidance and also the cleaning up of the orbits from space debris require completely new approaches including AI.
By discussing the three structural aspects of STM, it might have become clear, how big the challenge is in view of avoiding damage to science, economy and security and in view of organising the setting up of STM on a global scale. It might, however, also become apparent that establishing STM means technological spring innovation and political opportunities for peaceful cooperation. STM is the task for this decade. Let us start now shaping and establishing it!