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For nearly a century, the FAA has maintained air traffic control for things that fly close to earth. Now NASA is getting a handle on safe operations in space, where the population of satellites is growing fast. With more on its new best practices handbook, technical program manager Joshua Krage joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Tom Temin: So this book has a pretty direct, easy to understand title, NASA Spacecraft Conjunction Assessment and Collision Avoidance Best Practices Handbook. Tell us what this is designed to do and how it was all put together.
Joshua Krage: So when satellites are put into space, we have a variety of coordination measures to make sure that when we’re approaching another spacecraft operator to their satellite, that we can make sure that we understand where we are with respect to each other and avoid a conjunction or inadvertent collision. So we put the handbook together to really guide ourselves at first, and then we realized it had some broader applicability, perhaps across the industry and helping explain how we approach the problem.
Tom Temin: Because this industry is getting increasingly commercial and increasingly international too, isn’t it?
Joshua Krage: It’s very exciting to watch all the new operators participate.
Tom Temin: What about the secondary question of debris in space, besides operational satellites, I understand there’s a lot of junk up there, which NASA also tracks is that part of this handbook?
Joshua Krage: The debris is another type of space object that we will try and avoid of course. Debris is a very large problem. And we are trying to work with all of the space industry to reduce the amount of debris out there and to find ways to be more creative in both preventing new debris but also to make sure we understand where it is and avoid any negative effects from that.
Tom Temin: And just for the layman in a particular orbit banned low Earth orbit, high Earth orbit, the space station is one orbit, weather satellites are in different orbits. There are several zones that satellites operate in, within those orbit zones, is everybody precisely the same height or could it be plus or minus 20 miles high.
Joshua Krage: Right, within a low Earth orbit, for example, there could be a wide variety of altitudes as we refer to them for different spacecraft. So can be anywhere from 400 kilometers in space up to seven or 800 kilometers, before we get into the other zones of orbits.
Tom Temin: So that means not everything within a zone is going the same speed.
Joshua Krage: Right, everything, even at the same altitude, we might have different satellites oriented in different ways in the Earth orbit. Some might be going from equatorial orbit, some might be going in a polar orbit over the north and south poles or some variety across those. So every orbits of this a little bit different. And the accumulation gives us the interesting challenge at different speeds, different altitudes, why this is kind of a complex problem for all of us to work through.
Tom Temin: In other words, there’s a million variables operating and it’s not as if everything’s in the same band going the same speed in the same direction, in other words.
Joshua Krage: From the perspective of an observer, everything seems to be moving in a kind of a different direction, different speed, different height. So it’s a three dimensional game of understanding where everything is going and trying to predict that far enough ahead that we can make effective decisions around that.
Tom Temin: It’s almost like you have thousands of cars driving across the Bonneville Salt Flats at kind of random and hoping they don’t hit one another.
Joshua Krage: Absolutely. If you add the on ramps, exit ramps that all the other ramps in between.
Tom Temin: Alright, and then I wanted to ask you about something mentioned in one of the best practices in the handbook very early is to get an account for spacetrack.org for owners and operators. What is that? Is that something operated by the government or is it an international cooperation? What is it?
Joshua Krage: Spacetrack.org is managed out of the US Space Command, the 18th space control Squadron, they provide the space situational awareness mission for the US government, but also they provide that service out to anyone that would like to have an account. So any space operator can register for an account on that website, and get access to the free services that DoD provides that help provide information about what other operators are doing in space, and help them bring their weirdness to conjunctions and ensure that all that is taken care of.
Tom Temin: And so this handbook gives a lot of best practices which are detailed and their technical, a satellite operator though, once they have something an asset operating and revolving in space. What can they do to avoid conjunctions? What does the handbook advise them that’s possible, such that they can keep their services going, but also avoid conjunctions?
Joshua Krage: Well, that’s the very first thing is to plan well ahead of launching and operating in space. We encourage a lot of planning, a lot of pre coordination. Once objects are in space that the focus shifts to coordinate with other operators be aware of what’s going on around you. Coordinating your maneuver plans, watching what other operators are doing and cross sharing that information with every operator so we can all find a way to avoid any kind of negative effects in space.
Tom Temin: And getting to the handbook itself, was this a strictly NASA effort? Was it a NASA and DoD effort? Or were international and commercial partners involved in the creation of it?
Joshua Krage: The current version of the handbook is based off a purely governmental effort. We work closely with several of our federal partners, including Space Command, to make sure that we had their insight made sure we were reflecting their interest, for example, a spacecraft that ordered properly. And we are hoping that additional parties, both international and commercial, will share their thoughts and their feedback on what we have provided.
Tom Temin: Because I imagine, say in countries like India, and other emerging nations that have space assets, and are launching satellites, this all happens below whatever the international politics might be. And it’s just technical people wanting to make sure everything works together. Do you expect countries like say, India, and what about China? Would they also be involved in future versions and making sure that everybody’s together on the same page here?
Joshua Krage: We hope to at least they consider what we have put out as a potential starting point.
Tom Temin: And how come we haven’t had more conjunctions already? Or do we have them regularly, we just don’t know about them?
Joshua Krage: The number of conjunctions is relatively high, the number of dangerous conjunctions is relatively low, but as their satellites increase that’s going to change over time and become a bigger problem. So we haven’t had as big of a challenge to date only because we’ve been proactive in monitoring that and taking action such as making a maneuver when a dangerous conjunction is predicted.
Tom Temin: So conjunction means they actually touch not just coming close?
Joshua Krage: Potentially, yes, depending on the severity of it, absolutely.
Tom Temin: How does NASA monitor that because there’s so many objects, both pieces and operating satellites, there must be numbering in the hundreds of thousands by now?
Joshua Krage: NASA relies primarily on the DoD’s US Space Comm, the 18th Space control Squadron, they maintain their space fence, their space surveillance system that provides the most consolidated database of larger debris objects, as well as active satellites and things around the Earth. So we’re relying very heavily on that to understand where things are, and use them in our calculations for the predictions for making sure we don’t have a problem.
Tom Temin: And is there a say a maturity model, so to speak, that might apply to different operators, because you have people that have been operating satellites for 50-60 years that do telecommunications and polar Earth weather observation, sophisticated users. Are some of these new ones that are launching fleets of little tiny ones by the hundreds and all of this, is there a kind of a learning curve as an operator, where you reach a point where you get serious about these conjunctions, and in the long term effects of all this?
Joshua Krage: Absolutely. And that’s what we hope the handbook will help lead other operators that perhaps may not have thought through all of that, or want to know where to start, how to get started, and what a mature model might look like. And of course, we are interested in learning how we could might mature our own practice as well.
Tom Temin: Alright, so the handbook is out. It’s in digital form. I’ve read a few pages of it and kind of got lost, although it’s fairly understandable for the layman. What do you do with it? What happens? How are you promoting it?
Joshua Krage: Well, we are making it available and just sharing it through industry forums and through our engagements with the various partners and groups that we already talked to.
Tom Temin: Alright, so you’re optimistic that conjunctions or crashes, I guess is the lay term for it can be avoided long term with these kinds of practices.
Joshua Krage: We definitely believe that will be the case.
Tom Temin: And just one detail question. How small is the debris that might be up there and can a very tiny piece of debris harm a very large satellite?
Joshua Krage: Absolutely, debris ranges in all shapes and sizes. Right now we can track down to about a softball sized object. But there are much smaller objects that can still cause significant damage to a satellite.
Tom Temin: I guess at the right speed, even a tiny screw can go through a thin skinned object.
Joshua Krage: Exactly. Very small debris can potentially impact a satellite at over 10,000 kilometers per second, which is where the kinetic energy causes the damage.
Tom Temin: Got it. Alright, well, let’s hope it doesn’t happen. Joshua Krage is a technical program manager at NASA. Thanks so much for joining me.