Stein’s Law says: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” With any luck, it applies to today’s limp management of the geostationary orbital arc by individual governments and international regulators.
Billions of dollars a year are generated from this orbital highway in addition to the incalculable value of military satellites also there. And yet, both in orbit and on the ground, this precious asset continues to be managed like Rick’s Cafe in “Casablanca.”
Loosey-goosey regulation may work well as a pioneering new industry finds its footing, but that’s no longer the case with the geostationary satellite sector.
Each year brings news of yet another nation announcing its own telecommunications satellite financed by governments that may have no idea of how to manage a business once the satellite is operational. After all, the fun part ends at launch.
At last count, there were some 1,400 objects in geostationary orbit, half of them drifting uncontrollably around the arc. About 180 have collected, like autumn leaves blown against a building, at one of two libration points caused by irregularities in the Earth’s gravity field.
Despite the noble efforts of the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee, too many operators forget to park their dying satellites well off to the side of the arc, there to remain for thousands of years.
Most recently, the U.S. and Russia have launched satellites into geostationary orbit designed to sidle up to other satellites, size up their operations and then move on to the next object of interest.
What happens when these satellites perform an unplanned orbital maneuver at the same time as the satellites with the formally acknowledged right to the orbital slot in question? An in-orbit collision would risk polluting, forever, a section of the geostationary orbit.
This is no nod-and-a-wink exercise between knowing militaries. Russia’s Luch/Olymp and the U.S. Air Force’s GSSAP spacecraft have been cozying up to U.S. and Russian commercial telecommunications satellites, according to amateur satellite trackers. So far as is known, the trespassing satellites’ military owners do not call before arriving.
On the non-military side, global regulators face so much resistance to installing a firm regulatory regime and code of conduct for geostationary orbit that they seem weary of the effort.
Consider: The International Telecommunication Union has no idea what’s really going on 36,000 kilometers above the equator. A half-hearted attempt to give the ITU at least some peek-in rights in the form of a network of ground radars seems to have run aground.
The result is that a nation can say just about anything it wants to the ITU. Nations that find themselves in front of the ITU have been known to lie through their teeth, knowing the ITU has little recourse but to accept their statements.
To make matters worse, the ITU operates under rules that render opaque much of its decision-making. Many important meetings are not recorded, and their minutes are open to revision by those present.
Is there any meeting of global governments as closed to outside monitoring as the quadrennial four-week World Radiocommunication Conference? Its debates are esoteric in the extreme, but given the increasing importance of radio spectrum to modern life, it’s a meeting that merits 24/7 Klieg-light exposure.
The system overhaul that’s needed is so extensive and so improbable — try getting 190 nations to agree to something — that it discourages the most energetic reformers.
But a hint of a possible future reform was highlighted at a recent meeting in Washington, where a U.S. Defense Department official remarked, in passing, that 90 percent of what the DoD’s Space Surveillance Network observes in orbit is non-DoD hardware. So DoD is offering a global, free public service that, unlike GPS, is not a byproduct of operating its own assets.
For now the DoD is the sole provider of advance warning of in-orbit collisions, and to track comings and goings in the geostationary arc, although Russia has a limited ability as well.
Is it possible to imagine a day when the DoD will say to the non-military satellite world: “You’re on your own”?
Intelsat General President Kay Sears evoked such a possibility and said it may take such a decision by DoD to shock the broader satellite sector to figure out its own way to track geostationary-orbit activities. Unlikely maybe, but Stein’s Law has a way of sneaking up on you.