The Federal Aviation Administration is making the case that it and not the military should police commercial space traffic, and Congress is helping the flight agency take the first step.
The Federal Aviation Administration might be extending its commercial air traffic control responsibilities into space.
The House passed a bill Sept. 22 by a vote of 425-0 to investigate what role the FAA might play in directing commercial and foreign space traffic. The bill would authorize a study of the impact such a shift might have.
Currently, the Defense Department is responsible for alerting satellite operators about potential collisions, and Congress would need to approve a change in authority.
However, with an expected increase in privately operated satellite activity on the horizon, FAA officials are preparing "to actually roll up our sleeves" and take over non-military responsibilities of space traffic control, said George Nield, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, at a recent American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference. The conference was reported on by Space News and the Wall Street Journal.
Transitioning commercial satellite safety to the FAA would allow DOD to focus to military satellites and national security concerns, while the FAA, a regulatory civilian agency within the Transportation Department, addresses private operations.
"We are in a better position to talk about norms of behavior from a safety perspective rather than having it filtered through the military," Nield said.
There is support for such a transition at the Pentagon as well. During a presentation delivered in April, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Douglas Loverro said, "The FAA really should be in charge of managing what's going on in space."
If it were to direct commercial space traffic, Nield said the FAA would want immunity from lawsuits against the information it communicates to satellite operators, "just like DOD has today."
Nield said that because the Air Force is already "doing a much bigger job" of monitoring and cataloging the man-made objects in Earth's orbit, the FAA would primarily focus on playing traffic cop for commercial activity.
"We believe it is possible to do this job for a relatively modest cost," which would depend on price tags for equipment, cybersecurity and personnel training, he added.