Speaking up about “best practices” for space safety

The “Satellite Orbital Safety Best Practices” document released by AIAA and crafted by Iridium, OneWeb and SpaceX arrives at an inflection point in the years of discussions about how to avoid calamitous collisions in low Earth orbit.

The space community in the United States and abroad now appears poised to take action. In Switzerland, the International Organization for Standardization, ISO, is addressing the topic with fresh energy. Here in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission last month released a draft rule that would require U.S. operators to dispose of their spacecraft no more than five years after the end of a mission (we have set a goal of one year). Also, the U.S. Office of Space Commerce last month signed an agreement to work with the Department of Defense and NASA toward a system of basic, U.S. government-led services for space traffic coordination.

Our reference guide provides a solid foundation for such steps and deliberations, the goal being to forge a global consensus about acceptable behaviors in orbit, especially in the increasingly crowded LEO domain. We began our work by reviewing four previously produced efforts as our source material. We found many points of agreement, but our “best practices” guide is unique in that it represents the consensus of the three companies that today operate the lion’s share of the approximately 4,800 operational satellites in LEO. Reaching that consensus required discussion. As a professional technical society, AIAA was well positioned to get the conversation going, which the Institute did at the 2021 ASCEND space event. As an AIAA Fellow and a strong believer in the value that AIAA can bring to bear to address complex issues, I was pleased to serve as facilitator in the months it took to create this document.

Our work, though important, is just a start. The global space community must achieve a consensus and do so soon. At stake is the health of the economies of all nations and the lives of those who fly in space today and will in the coming years. I encourage you to download the guide and do your part to assure a better future for all of us.

IN THEIR WORDS: AIAA hosted an ASCENDxSpace Traffic Management webinar in September to discuss the “Best Practices” reference guide. Here are edited highlights:

Richard DalBello

U.S. Office of Space Commerce, Director

This is the kind of practical guidance that is so incredibly valuable to us in the U.S. government. Part of the role of my office is to encourage the long-term development of the commercial industry, but to accomplish this we must build a common understanding of long-term orbital safety and sustainability, both domestic and — importantly — in the international community. My office, along with the Department of Defense and NASA, is accelerating work to establish a new system for civil and commercial space traffic coordination. Last week, the Department of Commerce signed, with the Department of Defense, a memorandum of agreement to guide our work. It’s our common goal to provide a basic level of space traffic safety service for owners and operators such as you. But this isn’t just a government effort. There is a substantial commercial SSA [space situational awareness] industry that is providing new technologies and a range of new services. These companies will need all of our sense assistance. It’s my hope that this valuable collection of best practices will inspire other similar efforts. 

Dave Goldstein

SpaceX, Principal guidance, navigation and control engineer

To me, the document is a testament of commercial companies coming together, even though they’re competitors, to share best practices and lead by example with respect to space safety. We’ve developed a super strong working relationship with other satellite operators at the operational level and put down on paper real on-orbit experiences to maintain a safe orbital environment, protect human spaceflight and ensure the environment is kept sustainable for future missions to Earth orbit and beyond.

John Guiney

OneWeb, Vice president for fleet operations management

We tried to go to great lengths to make sure that this wasn’t considered an American document. It could be used by anybody. Yes, we used other documents to start, but collectively the people on this telecon have years and years of practical experience in applying some of the rules from those documents, and we’re using them today to safely operate our constellations. Dave Goldstein and I have worked through some issues that may have stymied other organizations, but we did it because we just had a great respect for each other and our ability to do that. OneWeb was working with Ryan Shepperd and Iridium actually before we started orbit raising our first set of spacecraft through their constellation. I just hope people will be able to read this document and know where to start from there.

Ryan Shepperd

Iridium, Mission planning and orbital analyst, space situational lead

Iridium is deeply committed to space sustainability for the obvious reason that, in 2009, we became the only operator to have lost a satellite catastrophically to the issue of space debris. We want to share our 25 years of operating about 41 metric tons in orbit so that we can operate safely for another 25 years, and so that all operators and nations continue to have access to space by operating responsibly. In this document, we were interested in highlighting the broad consensus that does exist among many operators that do have the experience. This document is not to detract from existing documents that are out there. In fact, I went over one recently just to see if there were any disagreements between the two documents, and there were none. When you see a point being made over and over again in multiple documents, multiple venues, that’s something to latch onto.

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Speaking up about “best practices” for space safety