Mega-constellations are a new commercial space trend. There will be 100s or 1000s of satellites in one formation. But the space law on them is sketchy. An inter-agency meeting this week wants to improve that.
It's now time for the real talks to begin - just days after the 7th European Conference on Space Debris ended. And this week's talks will have questions to answer left over from the week before.
It was "the most important conference on space debris." You could hear that line bouncing off the walls at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt. But it was just the starter.
This week Darmstadt hosts a closed-door, governmental meeting of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). Whether it was planned or not, the IADC is set to discuss a much-needed renewal of international space law, which is, experts admit, rather vague. But how far they will go is anyone's guess.
It bares mentioning that the space debris meeting was indeed important at the scientific level. Scientists from universities, government agencies - like NASA, ESA and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) - and representatives from a rather tight-lipped space industry, notably Orbital ATK and OneWeb, were there.
Space debris comprises of spent rocket parts, old satellites and pieces which have become detatched from spacecraft
Scientists presented their latest space debris research on detection, mitigation, capture and re-entry technologies. And there was a real sense of discussion and debate. The scientists would challenge each other or propose potentially useful suggestions. "Have you tried such-and-such material? It might work better," said one participant, and the response was, "Thanks, that's a good idea. We should consider that in our future work."
The most immediate priority, however, would seem to be addressing space law. There is a palpable sense that the space community needs enforceable international laws and regulations, rather than - or merely to bolster - its current inter-agency agreements. They've served us so far, but few countries have actually signed up to them. That leaves a lot of wriggle-room, especially as space becomes increasingly commercialized.
Most of our space activities are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It's a short document that primarily seeks to ensure space operations are "peaceful" and for the good of all humanity. It is complemented by other agreements, including a set of documents on mitigating space debris.
"We have a good, coherent set of justified rules and we don't intend to alter them drastically," said Christophe Bonnal of the French Space Agency, CNES, and the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) in closing remarks last week. "But we will improve them at the IADC meeting to include mega-constellations."
Mega-constellations are the elephant in the room, if you'll excuse the cliche, but both are big so it fits. Mega-constellations have largely been proposed by commercial companies, such as OneWeb, and are finding tacit support among government agencies. These huge formations would feature hundreds or thousands of small satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). But the plans are controversial, mostly because LEO is incredibly congested. It's where scientists and space agencies seem to be concentrating their efforts to mitigate the threat from space debris as large, cascading clouds of debris pose the earliest threat to space travel, and potentially to life on Earth.
Bonnal repeated his line about "justified rules" - whatever they may be - before conceding "now they have to be enforced."
It is a key point. And that's just for the rules that exist.
"Rules are not always applied," said the European Space Agency's head of Clean Space, Luisa Innocenti. "But that's not because people are nasty - it's because some rules are difficult to apply."
There is also concern that the current guidelines fail to address emerging scenarios. For instance, what happens if a commercial operator of a mega-constellation of satellites goes bust? Who would take responsibility then? Who would de-orbit all the impending space debris?
Holger Krag, who heads ESA's Space Debris office, said mitigation guidelines were applied in national law - and then added softly "in some countries."
"There are no international, regulatory, binding laws [on debris]," said Krag. "There's been no progress on the guidelines in decades. But if we can't have a binding international law, let's at least have similar laws at the national levels."
What "similar" might mean, is again anyone's guess and just as vague as the existing Outer Space Treaty.
But if space law is to first move forward at a national level, then there's pressure on countries like Germany to take a lead. And that may spell trouble for the mega-operators. Germany's Economy Minister, Brigitte Zypries, whose department is responsible for space activities, made her position clear.
"Germany wants a sustainable approach to space," said Zypries, "and that means reducing the number of objects we put in space. It can't be that smaller satellites reach the end of their life cycle after 3-5 years and then hang around for another 20 years. And we can't have thousands of satellites that need constant replacing. We need new numbers on this." And new laws.