Jeffrey LewisRethinking Freedom of Action in Orbit

Most of you have, by now, read the stories, including good ones by Bill Broad (who had it first) and Joel Achenbach, about the catastrophic (and possibly cascading) collision between an Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite. Geoff Forden here at Arms Control Wonk and Josh Pollack, newly installed at Total Wonkerr, are leading the discussion.

I’ve spent the last eight years listening to ideological rants about preserving our “freedom of action” in outer space. And by “freedom of action,” the speaker always means something very narrow — the right to deploy orbiting death rays or moon bases or some other nonsense.

I’ve always replied that the most pressing threat to our freedom of action in space isn’t someone shooting down one of our satellites or a ban on space-based missile defenses, but the sort of collision that happened on Tuesday: More countries launching more satellites, threatening the sustainable use of outer space by crowding the most valuable orbits with satellites and orbital debris.

The real challenge posed by the growing number of space-faring states relates to more mundane problems such as the growth of debris and orbital crowding. Failure by new space-faring states to operate responsibly could challenge to US freedom of action in outer space.

The implication of this is straight-forward: If you believe the most dangerous threats to our satellites basically arise from an increasingly crowded orbital environment, rather than nefarious plots, then we must cooperate with other countries to manage these problems and preserve the orbital envrionment. Cooperation requires rules, some of which might have to be embodied in a treaty.

The loss of the Iridium satellite, in a collision with a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite, should make clear that the United States needs to play a leadership role in putting into place the institutions necessary for managing orbital space, from cooperative data sharing to codes of conduct to, yes, treaties.

Late Update: David Wright has posted a background paper on the UCS website.


  1. Brian W (History)

    Hear hear.

    By coincidence, I was already scheduled to give a presentation on Tuesday at the UN COPOUS Science and Technical Subcommittee meeting on the subject of international civil space situational awareness, exactly the sort of thing we need to help prevent this sort of event.

    More to follow, as I’m quite certain this will be a topic of interest with all of the delegates here in Vienna.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Here is a draft of what eventually appeared, in modified form, as Jeffrey Lewis, “Space Control Isn’t Freedom of Action” in _Ad Astra_ 17:28-29 (Fall 2005).

    I wrote it almost well before China and the United States conducted one-off direct ascent ASAT demonstrations in 2007 and 2008. Although dated in that respect, I think the basic point about the balance of risks from deliberate vs. other threats remains basically sound.

    Space Dominance Is Silly

    “The war in space began during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM,” Air Force General Lance Lord declared in December 2004, “when Saddam Hussein’s forces placed GPS jammers around Baghdad in attempt to defeat the accuracy of our GPS aided munitions.” Not that it mattered. Days after Operation IRAQI FREEDOM began, the US Air Force released a grainy video of a GPS-guided bomb wiping out the last of the jammers.

    Still, Defense officials ominously mentioned Iraq’s GPS jamming in speeches and Congressional testimony. Then-Air Force Secretary James G. Roche actually sounded excited about Iraq’s efforts to jam GPS signals, explaining that the Defense Department “had been waiting for this to happen and wondering when someone would finally do it. This was the first time that we could point to something in an unclassified way and say, ‘See, someone is trying to interfere with our ability to use space to get the effects we desire.’”

    General Lord’s description of a “war in space” was strange—the ground-based jammers employed Iraq targeted the GPS receivers, not satellites. Downlink jamming no more threatens assets “in space” than a tipsy fisherman who dumps his GPS receiver in the drink.

    Even stranger, though, was a subsequent Pentagon decision to slash almost a billion dollars from GPS modernization over 2006-2008 and delay the launch of jam resistant GPS Block III satellites to 2012. All major space acquisition programs are overbudget, forcing painful choices about which priorities will be funded in a resource constrained environment. The most controversial “space dominance” programs—take space control microsatellites—are little more than basic research programs. Judging by the defense budget, “space dominance” isn’t so much a policy, as an attitude.

    So, who cares if some four-star, looking to retire with a sweet defense industry gig, shoots his mouth off about space dominance being our destiny?

    I do. The purpose of the space control mission is, first,” “to ensure freedom of action in space for friendly forces…” Space dominators oppose most international negotiations concerning outer space because new agreements might constrain some undefined, future capability. One fellow even mentioned pulling out of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits installations on the moon among other things.

    Not that we have a plan for a moon-base, but we might – you know?

    Speaking for the Rumsfeld Space Commission, Retired Air Force General Ronald Fogelman warned “one of the biggest threats to future space capability may be the unintended consequences of well-intentioned people signing up to certain treaties and restrictions today that in and of themselves seem to be very innocent. And as you go down the road,” Fogelman said (to mix a metaphor), “they could end up tying our hands in ways that would very much limit our ability to continue to be dominant.” Fogelman’s view is perfectly in step with a Defense Department that lumps “international fora, judicial processes and terrorism” together as “strategies of the weak.”

    The skepticism of the space dominators, however, reveals a shallow understanding of the relationship between the rule of law and freedom of action. The Western tradition of governance—with the possible exception of the French Revolution—rests on the belief that the rule of law enhances freedom. Freedom’s opposite is not law, but law’s absence: anarchy. Every first-year law student learns this lesson in his or her contracts class. Some of those lawyers represent the Bush Administration, which invoked the same principle to support ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). William H. Taft IV, Legal Adviser to the Department of State, argued:

    While we have been able to rely on diplomatic and operational challenges to resist excessive maritime claims, it would be more desirable to establish universal norms of behavior and have available additional methods of resolving conflicts.

    As the most powerful country in the world, the United States can ensure the rules reflect our interests. Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark also testified that UNCLOS would increase freedom of action at sea, leading to a natural question: Why can’t law free the Air Force in space as it does the Navy at sea?

    The prevailing trend in outer space is the growing number of states that can build and launch satellites. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center recently released a report emphasizing threat from more space-faring states in terms of anti-satellite weapons. This may come to pass, but new space-faring states have yet to develop new anti-satellite weapons—deliberate threats to space assets remain much as they have for the past two decades. The last (and only) foreign ASAT system tested was Russia’s “co-orbital” ASAT system 1982. The Defense Department last reported it to be “in readiness” in 1990. China’s “only current means of destroying or disabling a satellite,” according to the Defense Department, “would be to launch a ballistic missile or space launch vehicle armed with a nuclear weapon.”

    The real challenge posed by the growing number of space-faring states relates to more mundane problems such as the growth of debris and orbital crowding. Failure by new space-faring states to operate responsibly could challenge to US freedom of action in outer space.

    Since 1957, the number of man-made objects catalogued by the United States Air Force has grown to almost 9,000. Ninety-four percent of these objects serve no purpose—they are orbital debris or “space junk.” Although we know very little about the debris populations in low earth orbit and even less about debris in geostationary orbit, mathematical extrapolations based on optical and radar observations, as well as studies of spacecraft that have returned from orbit, suggest that, left unchecked, debris could become a hazard to space operations over the long-term.

    How crowded orbits will become will depend on a number of factors, including the number of space launches and procedures to mitigate debris creation. The debris population has stabilized in recent years due partly to better debris mitigation measures, but mostly to the collapse in demand for launch services. A rebound in that market, combined with new entrants into the commercial launch service industry, could substantially increase the amount of orbital debris.

    Satellites also create collision risks. Uncertainties in the locations of converging objects are represented as ellipsoids that are much larger than the objects themselves. Based on the risk of a collision, a satellite operator may choose to maneuver its satellite to a new position—a decision that costs fuel (and service life) of a satellite. In addition to the risk of physical collision, communications satellites stationed too close to each other in geostationary orbit may interfere with each other’s communications.

    The United States ought to play a leadership role in addressing these questions. Steps might include improving our compliance with the UN Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Space (we are the worst offenders in terms of unregistered objects), pressing India and Russia to drop objections to making voluntary debris mitigation guidelines mandatory and developing international space “traffic control” procedures.

    Achieving these ambitious goals will require the United States to discuss our future military activities in outer space. But proposals by Russia and China to discuss military activities in outer space explicitly exclude current capabilities. In other words, we’d be talking about programs we won’t be deploying for decades—hardly a threat to our freedom of action.

    Yet, space dominators still fear opening up a debate over these issues. I suspect the discussion they fear is not with Moscow or Beijing, but with American public and the United States Congress.

    That could get complicated.

  3. Distiller (History)

    The idea Freedom of Action works only as long as it does not collide with physical reality.
    A Civil Orbital Administration (COA) would sure be a good idea. Though I’m sceptical about the UN in general, UNOOSA would be the right place for such a COA, and if it’s only to tie-together all the various monitoring activities of the nation states and supranational space orgs.
    No commercial operator is loosing any freedom by that.
    And the military aspect will always by nature be un-coordinated – the forces have to work around these problems by higher onboard awareness, increased maneuverability, and a rapid replacement capability.

    But in the end it’s a technical problem, and the 50% or so dead sats up there need a technical solution. Meaning orbital tow trucks in the form of suicide microsat tugs (perfect for group launch on Ariane V and the like), which latch on the target and crash it into the atmosphere.

    For the future a global treaty is needed that all sats have to be crashed at the end of their life.
    Btw, I think that, at least for GEO, the actual parking positions in crowded areas is a lesser problem than the transfer to that spot.

    For debris maybe at some point a laser is strong enough to vaporize it. Commercial job for AL-1?

  4. Major Lemon (History)

    Lets please get some perspective. This is a FIRST in over 50 years of space flight. Let me tell you, worse things happen at sea.

    [Actually, Major Lemon, this is incorrect. Although this is certainly the worst such incident — and therefore without precedent — this is the seventh satellite to be struck by either a piece of debris (in an eighth instance, a rocket collided with a spent rocket stage). As you can see from the data in David Wright’s backgrounder, the number of collisions has picked up in recent years.

    1991 Inactive Cosmos 1934 satellite hit by cataloged debris from Cosmos 296 satellite

    1996 Active French Cerise satellite hit by cataloged debris from Ariane rocket stage

    1997 Inactive NOAA 7 satellite hit by uncataloged debris large enough to change its orbit and create additional debris

    2002 Inactive Cosmos 539 satellite hit by uncataloged debris large enough to change its orbit and create additional debris

    2005 U.S. rocket body hit by cataloged debris from Chinese rocket stage

    2007 Active Meteosat 8 satellite hit by uncataloged debris large enough to change its orbit

    2007 Inactive NASA UARS satellite believed hit by uncataloged debris large enough to create additional debris

    2009 Active Iridium satellite hit by inactive Cosmos 2251

    The possibility of collisional cascading is quite real. — ACW.]

  5. Major Lemon (History)

    OK AC, you’ve convinced me that there is a problem. However, if much of the uncataloged debris is natural, ie meteorites, interplanetary dust, ejecta, comet debris etc then there isn’t much we can do. You can’t track objects the size of a pea and something that size or smaller is potentially an issue if it is travelling at 60,000 mph. It’s going to be just another occupational hazard. The best we can do is track whatever we can. International agreements could be effective if everyone understands it’s in everyones interest to pool data and resources.

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Gosh, why was this not seen coming? Iridium is used quite a lot by the US military so you’d think that NORAD would have given a heads up to Iridium that a collision had a non trivial chance of happening. Esp since an Iridium can maneuver. Also, this collision happened in what must be one of the most monitored volumes of space from a radar POV. I’m not pointing fingers, but I sure would like to look at the record of ephems for the Cosmos to ensure its final trajectory was the result of only natural forces.

  7. Jim Oberg (History)

    comment posted elsewhere: “I think that you need find a a way of sharing ‘hi-fi’ orbits and covariance in a standardized format that would at a minimum, be combined with TLEs for debris and inoperable satellites.”

    I agree with this approach, with this addendum: as raw tracking data goes stale very quickly, the importance of tracking closer to candidate conjunctions grows. Isn’t one problem with the non-alarming prediction for Iridium-33 that there was a long period since passage over the last US sensor? Well, there were plenty of sensor passes closer to the collision — RUSSIAN sensors. Why didn’t THEY sound an alarm?

    No blame gaming here — they were no more derelict than anyone else. But maybe there’s a principle of shared responsibility analogous to the ‘last-one-who-touched-it-is-at-fault’ principle on Earth. The last one who tracked it — who had the best state vector and thus the highest accuracy of predicted miss distance and smallest 95% certainty radius — is the one who should have shouted out, no matter WHO owned the objects in question.

    Implementing this in practice would involve calibrating TLEs, creating fast-reaction jointly-accessible data bases, and revealing private stuff about actual accuracies and capabilities. I expect bureaucratic resistence to be intense — and there might even be some good reasons for some of it.

    The current state of affairs — where Iridium was getting hundreds of conjunction notices a week with the full knowledge that practically all of them were false alarms (a judgment that grew in credibility as year followed no-incident year, talk about ‘normalizing deviance’!!) — can be evolved into a situation where a manageable, credible smaller number of ‘I-really-MEAN-it’ alerts can actually be handled thoughtfully by the constellation management center.

    Iridium also in the near future should practice a dummy avoidance maneuver or two, so the procedures are on the books and validated. Pick an old bird with higher prop reserves then needed to end-of-life, and move it a few kilometers out of position in a few hours, then move it back (more slowly, to save prop — that’s OK). Just performing this exercise would go a long way to shift the notion of responsibility off Iridium’s back, and onto the current lack of an international tracking-sharing protocol.

  8. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    We really need an open means of tracking satellites and make the data open to the world. I work in Astronomy, have a machine shop and can grind glass. If anybody out there with a engineering and science background wants to join me in a long term project to make an open source solution to optical satellite tracking that can be deployed around the world, write me. The world needs this information and it needs to be open.

    [Others, of course, already visually track satellites: It is a community you should think about joining. ACW]

  9. Canttouchthis

    US military responsible for such conjunction analyses is understaffed and has archaic technology — and looking out for Iridium does not fall within their purview anyway.

  10. coyote (History)

    Distiller has an interesting point regarding the use of lasers to vaporize small debris.

    Ivan Bekey has published papers on the feasibility of Space Debris Removal Systems. He proposes using a network of lasers, radars, and tug sats to clean up the debris. He concludes that debris clean up can be done over the course of several months and at an affordable cost.

    Like all space-minded people, I worry about space debris and support efforts to mitigate its creation during war and peace.

    Do you think it would be possible for a well regulated commercial Space Debris Removal company to work with insurance companies and states with registered satellites to clean up the mess?

    If so, then we can charge those who create debris with the clean-up fee. This should result in lower insurance rates for everyone. In addition, this will make available the use of space that is currently considered too risky to enter due to existing debris fields.

    What adjustments to existing or proposed treaties, codes, or rules would need to be made to clearly allow Space Debris Removal Systems?



  11. Rwendland (History)

    Quite a coincidence two SSBNs should collide into each other underwater this month as well. UK HMS Vanguard and French Le Triomphant were damaged in the crash in heavy seas earlier this month. From the limited damage I’d guess they were both moving slowly and silently – wonder what the probability of that was. They were not on exercise together, so I guess this was a favoured bit of ocean for SSBN patrol.

  12. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Coyote’s idea brings a question to my mind. If nations are liable for the damage inflicted by the space activities of their citizens. What is the history of payments? If payments were of a magnitude above a few 10’s of millions per year, one could consider the cost of an abatement mission worthwhile. Perhaps the diplomatic cost could be figured in as well to justify the expense of a flight or ground based system.
    Which raises another question. When are the Russians going to pay Iridium? Are they liable? Is Iridium? If they are liable, will they pay for a satellite, or a satellite and a flight? Will they offer flight payment on a Soyuz knowing that ITAR might get in the way?