Space Subcommittee Discusses Hazards Posed by Orbital Debris

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The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space held a May 9 hearing to discuss space traffic management with a particular focus on orbital debris.  “The threat of orbital debris in key orbits around the Earth is a very real and a serious issue,” noted Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL).  The subcommittee was interested in investigating the state of space traffic management and wanted to hear how Congress can ensure a safe and secure space environment. 

Both sides of the aisle were interested in exploring which federal agencies have authority in space traffic management and how the United States should approach this matter with international partners.  Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) also wanted to hear from witnesses about procedures to ensure that information about orbital debris is shared in order to mitigate and avoid space debris.

Five witnesses testified.  John Raymond, Commander, Lieutenant General14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command and Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, U.S. Strategic Command spoke about the space environment and the U.S. programs in space situational awareness.  He described the technical capabilities of the Joint Space Operations Mission System as a replacement for the former command and control systems.  He noted that the U.S. will ”continue to strengthen relationships with allies and industry partners to ensure capabilities derived from and provided by space operations are available for all who peaceably require them.”

George Zamka, Deputy Associate Administrator in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spoke about the Commercial Space Launch Act as well as the jurisdiction of the various agencies associated with space transportation.  The FAA has jurisdiction during launch but once a satellite is in orbit, the Federal Communications Commission or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration become the agencies in charge of regulating space transportation.  The Department of Defense and NASA partner with the FAA to address orbital debris issues.  Zamka’s recommendations to the subcommittee included that a regulatory agency should authorize space transportation through a licensing system and that an agency with enforcement authority should provide notices of possible debris. 

Robert Nelson, Chief Engineer of the International Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), described the FCC licenses for communications satellites noting that each license includes an assignment of an orbit.  He discussed the roles of the FCC, FAA and NOAA in debris mitigation.

P.J. Blount Adjunct Professor of Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law described the technical components and legal aspects of space traffic.  He emphasized the need for coordination in addressing debris mitigation and recommended that the subcommittee consider ways in which to ensure transparency of data sharing and access.  He also recommended that government agencies have unambiguous regulatory predictability and stated that there is a need for nations who operate in the space environment to ensure technical competence. 

Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor for the Secure World foundation discussed space debris mitigation, active debris removal and space traffic management.  He described the current role of the Department of Defense in space situational awareness and suggested that non-military agencies should step into that role. 

Following the testimony, Brooks asked witnesses to comment on the FAA’s authority relating to launch and reentry.  Zamka commented that the FAA’s current authority ends at the conclusion of the launch.  Raymond stated that it is important to consider the role of different agencies. 

Edwards wanted the witnesses to clarify which groups should be included in policy discussions about space debris removal.  Witnesses agreed that industry and federal agencies provide advice on debris and related space issues.  Raymond stated that because space situational awareness is a national security issue, the Department of Defense (DOD) should continue to address debris.  Edwards asked which entity should assume liability for space debris to which Blount responded that there is a need to preserve the technical capabilities vested in the DOD. 

Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) asked witnesses for their recommendations about how to address space debris that is already in orbit.  Zamka noted that there are currently 6 scientific studies on debris mitigation while Weeden echoed that the scientific and technical community is looking into that problem.  Bucshon was also interested in determining how to assign responsibility to entities that create space debris.  Much of the “space junk” in low-Earth orbit is from government satellites so questions of responsibility remain.  The Chinese anti-satellite tests in 2007 “resulted in the largest creation of debris in history.”

The hearing demonstrated bi-partisan support for space transportation and Members who engaged in a dialogue with the witnesses were interested in further understanding how each of the federal agencies collaborates to address issues caused by space debris.

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