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Management in Practice

Is Space Becoming the Next Front for War—and Traffic Jams?

Constellations of satellites surrounding the planet enable everyday tools like GPS and weather forecasts, and allow militaries to track troop movements and target weapons—in fact, the war in Ukraine has been described as the world's first commercial imagery space war. But the most desirable orbits are increasingly crowded and vulnerable to attack. Jamie Morin, a Yale PhD and expert in space defense and policy issues, explains what's at stake and how we avoid squandering this shared resource.

A time-lapse photo showing the arc of a rocket launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carries 20 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, California, on May 9.

Photo: Kirby Lee/Getty Images
  • Jamie M. Morin
    Vice President, Defense Strategic Space, The Aerospace Corporation; Executive Director, Center for Space Policy and Strategy

Q: Are national security issues showing up in space?

National security issues have shown up in space since the Cold War. Militaries around the world are enabled by space. They’re applying space technology for communications, for positioning—when you drop a bomb, you want to be able to precisely hit a target—and for situational awareness. Intelligence gathering or reconnaissance from space is very important for understanding the world they’re operating in.

Different nations have different levels of capability, but at this point you can buy good satellite communication and imagery from private companies.

The thing that is new is that militaries are increasingly talking publicly about the fact that, in conflict, they will want to deny their adversaries the advantages of space. This was part of the equation during the Cold War, but has been coming back to the fore in the last several years.

Q: How has this played out with the war in Ukraine?

The war in Ukraine has been highly space enabled. We know from public disclosures that in 2022, immediately prior to the further invasion following the 2014 occupation of Crimea, the Russians engaged in a cyberattack on a communications satellite company. It was focused on users in Ukraine, but it affected users around the world. In a sense, the first shot in Russia’s continuing war on Ukraine was a space attack.

Before the invasion occurred, the United States released satellite imagery to allies. Private companies also chose to publish imagery that showed that what the Russians were describing as exercises on the border of Ukraine were not in fact, by any reasonable interpretation, exercises.

Without all the space-enabled insight into what the Russians were doing, both immediately before they invaded and then after they actually did, there would’ve been much more complexity in getting the world aligned around the fact that this was an illegal invasion that had to be stopped. The Ukrainians would have been on their own longer, and potentially the Russians would have gotten further.

Finally, the Ukrainians have talked publicly about how their command-and-control networks are built on commercial satellite communications. Ukraine is a heavily industrial country but also a heavily agricultural country. Their forces are spread widely and operating sometimes in remote locations within the country, so communications to coordinate their activities are key. And those capabilities, supplied by commercial companies, have made their defense much more effective.

These are, I think, important anecdotes about how space-enabled technology is now accessible to countries that do not have large-scale military satellite programs of their own. I should mention: Ukraine is a technologically advanced country. Major parts of the Soviet space enterprise were in Ukraine. So they’re not neophytes, but as an independent nation, they are users, not large-scale operators of satellites.

This democratization of the technology is likely driving how nations are thinking about how space-connected military capability could be used in future conflicts. We’re now operating in a world where there is a very real risk that, if there’s significant conflict on Earth, it could extend to, or potentially even start in space.

Q: How is that being addressed?

First and foremost, we need to deter conflict in space. The United States has been encouraging countries to commit to not testing ground-to-space missiles that destroy satellites, because each time someone does this, it makes that area of the space environment more dangerous to operate in. China, Russia, and India have tested missiles to shoot down satellites in recent years, notwithstanding the fact that anti-satellite missiles create an enormous amount of debris that puts everyone at risk, including the International Space Station and astronauts on orbit.

If you sink a ship in a war, the ship goes to the bottom of the ocean. If you blow up a satellite, the fragments stay in orbit. potentially leaving important orbits unusable. Depending on the altitude, it could be a multi-decade- or century-long problem that could put at risk a lot of what people are depending on every day. That’s not a risk that’s too remote to be worried about. It could significantly increase the costs of operating in space for everybody, regardless of whether or not they were an initial target. So, it’s a priority to deter major conflict that extends to space and to avoid weapons testing in space so that all of these other things can continue unmolested.

Q: You mentioned space-enabled systems are vitally important to everyday life. Would you give us a sense of why space infrastructure matters?

Space is a pervasive technology. It touches a huge swath of human existence. Yet for most people, it’s also transparent. That speaks to the ubiquity of the technology and the degree to which it’s integrated into other things. Satellites deliver data that feed weather prediction models. Remote sensing—taking pictures of the Earth—tracks everything from agricultural production to levels of consumer activity to wildfires. The majority of international flows of data is done over fiber optic cables, but there’s a whole series of important applications which rely on satellites. And finally, there’s what we call positioning, navigation, and timing—GPS being the most familiar example of a system in that area.

Nobody has more right to an orbit than anybody else. You can have different countries and different companies all trying to take advantage of that narrow band of the most useful orbits, which absolutely could become very crowded.

The blue dot on the map on your phone is a product of a whole bunch of satellites that were developed and launched by the Air Force over decades and freed up for civilian use in the 1990s. GPS enabled a huge part of what we think of now as the gig economy, including Uber, Lyft, and all of the other services that need to know either where you are or where someone else is.

Q: Five years ago, you published an article in Nature outlining a series of steps toward a sustainable global management of space traffic, which at the time was 1,500 satellites. Today, there are nearly 10,000 satellites in orbit. Have we got a sustainable regime in place?

No, we’re not there yet. And it’s worth noting that those numbers are astounding. Humanity has been in space since 1957, but the share of total satellites that have gone on orbit in just the 2020s is larger than everything that happened before that. And it’s possible we could see another order of magnitude growth in the next several years.

While space is effectively infinite, the areas of space that are most useful for those of us here on Earth are not. There are real issues with crowding in useful orbits.

For example, if you’re trying to deliver broadband internet from space, you want to be close to the ground so that the signal doesn’t take too long to go up and down, but you don’t want to be so close to the ground that your satellite is running into the atmosphere and burning up really fast. Its lifespan is longer if it’s higher. That leaves a fairly narrow band of ideal altitudes.

In addition, we operate in a legal regime for the use of outer space that essentially says no one can plant their flag and claim other planets, and nobody has more right to an orbit than anybody else. Because there’s no right of first occupancy, you can have different countries and different companies all trying to take advantage of that narrow band of the most useful orbits, which absolutely could become very crowded.

How do we globally avoid the tragedy of the commons in this environment? That is still a huge policy issue. We need to make sure that crowding doesn’t result in bad outcomes where nobody’s systems work either from the physical proximity of the satellites or the electromagnetic interference that occurs when too many radio signals are going up and down close to each other.

Q: Are there promising solutions?

We have an agreed-upon framework in the higher-altitude, geosynchronous orbits. That’s where many of the traditional telecommunications satellites sit, because you can direct a dish on the surface of the Earth at a point in the sky and the satellite will always be there. That’s coordinated by national level regulators and the International Telecommunications Union, which is a United Nations body.

There’s also a company-to-company data sharing mechanism for geosynchronous orbit. The satellite telecom companies did a good job of forming the Space Data Association, a third-party which has access to the data from all the members’ satellites—the data about what your satellite is doing can be commercially sensitive, thus the need for a neutral organization—and that data sharing means that companies are able to monitor maneuvers and coordinate when they might interfere with neighboring satellites.

But there aren’t really the same options in other orbits.

Q: Why not?

You can of course still do data sharing, but the physics and geometries, particularly in low Earth orbit, mean that you need lots of satellites and they need to cover the Earth almost like a fishing net. If you have multiple constellations of satellites operating at or passing through the same altitude, there’s a risk of collision every time they’re there.

The risk can be minimized if you’re actively managing the satellites. But satellites launch with the fuel they have. Every time you burn some of it, you’re shortening the life of your satellite. So when you make a decision that you need to maneuver, that’s an expensive thing.

Nobody wants their satellite to run into somebody else’s, but we don’t always know with precision where satellites are in real time because they’re distant, moving fast, and we have limited sensors with which to track them. Some of them broadcast their position, but not all. And the debris that’s already up there is of course not communicating and can’t maneuver, so it’s an issue too.

The United States and Europe are in a dialogue about coordination between their respective space traffic management efforts. When we say space traffic management, it calls to mind air traffic management. That’s a somewhat misleading analogy because we’re not looking for the space equivalent of air traffic controllers giving continual direction; spacecraft are mostly moving on predictable orbital paths, so it’s much more about data sharing and well understood rules of the road so that operators can make their own decisions. Even so, it’s an ongoing process.

Q: How pressing is the issue?

Low Earth orbit is where most satellites operate now. There are currently more than 8,000 satellites in low Earth orbit and about 6,000 of them belong to SpaceX’s Starlink. To an extent, the risks of collisions in LEO is not as bad as we might have expected with the number of satellites in orbit now, because so many of them belong to one company. In an economic sense, Starlink has internally all the incentives to avoid collisions with itself. They’ve developed very sophisticated software to keep their satellites where they need to be and manage the risks when they do maneuver them.

Ten years ago, all of the systems in orbit were manually operated, and a U.S. Air Force unit, which had sensors to measure what was going on in space, would do either email or telephone notifications to satellite operators saying, “We assess that you’re at an elevated risk of collision with this other satellite operated by this other company. The two of you need to get together and figure out what to do.” That doesn’t scale to tens of thousands of satellites in orbit. As we get additional large constellations and many more operators up there, we have to be much more proactive with the mechanisms for coordination.

Last year, NASA launched a constellation of satellites called Starling that is conducting demonstrations of autonomous maneuvers and collision avoidance maneuvers. That constellation is also interfacing with the autonomous collision avoidance software of SpaceX’s Starlink. Two constellations working with one another to test automated avoidance is a start.

But we have a long way to go because, again, since no one has a property right to these orbits, no nation can tell another nation that they can’t go there. It’s a challenging global issue.

Q: How do we strike a balance between competition and cooperation?

If we look at this broadly, we can get improved human life for everybody by working together on these things. We have a terrifically successful global regime for sharing weather data. We’ve made weather forecasts dramatically better by sharing data. We can all use each other’s data to populate our weather models.

We also have agreements that minimize our risks of interfering with one another with GPS and the other global positioning, navigation, and timing systems. The United States has one, Europe has one, China has one, Russia has one. Other nations have regional capability. We’ve worked out how those can collaborate, more or less.

Not every application of space technology is the same. We have to work mission area by mission area. And we should focus on how can we get positive-sum outcomes wherever possible to maximize the value to people on Earth because that’s where the economic action really is.