Where is Space Traffic Control?


In response to this site’s previous posts, my most curious spouse asked a very common-sense question: who controls what gets launched into the Earth’s orbit?  For that matter, who controls what rockets get launched?  My initial response was that price had controlled the launching of satellites into orbit.  There was a time, not too long ago, when money was the gatekeeper and determined who could build, launch, and control satellites in space.  The richer a country was, the more likely it was able to be a space-faring nation.

But that has changed, and honestly, this isn’t an aspect of space operations I’ve really had to deal with.  The answer to her question, I think, is no one really controls who launches satellites into orbit.  Maybe we can muddle through this together to see why that probably is true.

First, just to make sure people are clear about what is meant by control, we’re not talking about satellite control, or the way a satellite’s operators send commands and receive telemetry from their satellites.  This is more about legal authority, and the ability to enforce it for all rockets, and satellites on them, that are launched (also, I’m not necessarily advocating control).  Sure, there are agencies in the US, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that have rules surrounding rocket launches conducted in the United States.  There are international bodies, such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), responsible for radio frequency and orbit allocation and coordination.

But what do the rules and courtesies these organizations facilitate really mean in the real world to people who choose to ignore them?  What if there’s a determined someone who has decided to build and launch rockets and satellites without letting anyone know?  We already know that if a country is determined to launch space vehicles, there’s not much other countries can do, aside from a full invasion, to prevent that.  Iran is one of the latest ones to prove that rule.  And it’s under intense scrutiny.

But, if a launch happened in a pasture in the middle of North Dakota, or in the middle of the Sahara Desert, would anyone really know about the launch before the satellite is up in orbit?  How intensely are those areas watched?  In theory, the launches might be detected, and someone, possibly the Spanish Inquisition, might get to those areas in time to lay down the law.  That depends, I think, on the way a country controls its airspace, or how good an overhead technology is, if it happens to be monitoring those areas.

A Chinese mobile launcher. Image hosted on Defensetech.org.

But, even with those assets aiding in the hunt, I then think of those mobile missile launchers other countries have, like the one pictured above.  How easy would it be for an organization to get some older ones at a “fire sale,” or perhaps from evacuated bases that might’ve contained them?  And then convert them to rocket launchers for getting small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO)?  Talk about possible cheap space launch options.  It would be mobile, too, so quite difficult to track–especially if no one expected it to be in a particular place, anyway.  Terrorists like to be unpredictable.

How would tracking of the launch be accomplished, though?  Do we really want to be in a world that’s under constant satellite scrutiny (some might argue it already is)?  The question that perhaps should be asked is: do we want to have an organization that is aware, at all times, about all launches?  Is something like that necessary or required?  Maybe something structured like the air traffic control systems, but more comprehensive?

There are satellites capable of detecting rocket launches, such as the ones in service to the US military:  the Defense Support Program (DSP) and Space Based InfraRed System (SBIRS).  But they are military-controlled and have a military mission.  For satellite tracking, there’s been plenty of talk about a “space fence.”  While there is a very rudimentary one in operation, a newer one might be a while in coming.  Especially since the newer space fence involves Lockheed Martin and the US government–both known for technical program progression at sub-glacial speeds (look at SBIRS!!  Too easy, I know…).

But even with those organizations and systems in place–ITU, FAA, SBIRS, DSP, etc.–they are only pieces in a global puzzle, one requiring more participants than just the US and its allies.   Until the other puzzle pieces come together, such as cooperation, planning, and money, then the questions regarding worldwide organizational control of launch vehicles and satellites around the world will continue to yield the same answer:  no one’s in control.


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