Space Safety: Mission Operations Best Practices

The first launch of an artificial object into orbit occurred just 64 years ago, in 1957. Since then, an assortment of governance, standardization, and regulation have struggled to provide universally cohesive operational direction for space launches. Unfortunately, the population explosion of CubeSats (nano-satellites made up of cubic modules), miniaturized spacecrafts, and expansive constellations were not envisioned when the aforementioned guidelines and standards reached relative maturity.

Promisingly, an international gathering of governmental and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) created The Space Safety Coalition (SSC). Founded in 2019, the SSC regularly publishes regime-agnostic best practices for space operations focused on Long-Term Sustainability (LTS). It intends to address the various aspects of the twenty-one consensus LTS guidelines through Working Groups, approved by the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UN COPUOS).

These best practices are created for general applicability despite the individual spacecraft size, constellation proportion, or orbital schemes. They are defined as valuable advancements toward sustainability of space operations. Industry leaders, like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, undersign the practices. Through the SSC, these companies actively promote space safety through the adoption and development of relevant international standards, guidelines, and practices. Their scope encompasses physical protections, communications rationalization, and space weather awareness with emphasis on sustainable safety.

SSC-defined practices contain several provisions and over 40 measures divided into 5 categories intended to improve space operations. Everything from processes and procedures for exchange of information on spacecraft operations to disposal of launch vehicles and constellation orchestration are intended to decrease the risk of collisions. Although the best practices in the document are non-binding, it states that operators will “promote and strive to implement” those plans. The 5 best practice categories are listed below.

  1. Spacecraft owners, operators and stakeholders should exchange information relevant to safety-of-flight and collision avoidance.

  2. In selecting launch service providers, space operators should consider the sustainability of the space environment.

  3. Mission and constellation designers and spacecraft operators should make space safety a priority when designing architectures and operations concepts for individual spacecraft, constellations and/or fleets of spacecraft.

  4. Spacecraft designers and operators should design spacecrafts that meet the following best practices: disposal, collision avoidance, passivation function, and communication

  5. Spacecraft operators should adopt space operations concepts that enhance sustainability of the space environment.

The recent explosive increase in space deployments and global interest has generated corresponding concern regarding close approaches and risk of collisions. Orbital debris population modeling indicates the potential for increased risk on missions. The SSC stakeholders appear well aware of these challenges, and have defined key milestones to address them. Currently, there are approximately 20,000 cataloged objects >10cm in Earth orbit (Figure*) according to NASA Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO). However this is rapidly climbing.

Minimizing the incidence and severity of Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) and security events is absolutely crucial for space communications. While more progressive laser communication mediums are being explored, the RF spectrum is heavily relied upon, and has significant advantages in the future. The heightened concern is due to spacecraft population eruption, and wide reaching implications for Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability (CIA).

With regard to communications, the latest SSC best practices state, “Spacecraft operators and designers should consider using methods (e.g., encryption) in spacecraft command and control to maintain positive control of, and avoid unauthorized access to, space asset flight command functions.” With wide frequency allotments overlapping (various ranges from 5GHz - 75GHz) for both astronomers (ground to space) and spacecraft operators (e.g. ground station communication) alike, the potential for unintended interference or adversary exploitation is significantly elevated.

Lunargistics is poised to simplify launch services by blending the best of technological innovations into the operational realms. Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) are a leading contender when considering SSC best practices for encryption, and similar requirements on space-faring missions. This flexibility enables Lunargistics to inject the combined power of efficacy, security, and safety into the next generation of space exploration.

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