The Federal Aviation Administration might be in line to take over the job of warning operators of commercial satellites about impending collisions with space debris.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon is ready to hand the job over to civilian authorities. The move would allow the Department of Defense to focus on protecting military spacecraft from hostile actions by foreign governments such as jamming or "threatening orbital maneuvers."
About 1,400 commercial satellites are flying now, and thousands more are expected in the next 10 years. The FAA would only take over the part of the job related to commercial satellites.
George Nield, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said the government is poised "to actually roll up our sleeves and talk about having the FAA take on the responsibility. It will be a lot easier for the United States to have conversations about safety with the rest of the world."
Nield said that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has sent a report that says the FAA is ready to take on the job. The changeover might not happen until after the new presidential administration takes over after the November election, the Journal said.
The FAA can regulate aircraft on the way up to orbit and once it returns, but no agency has been given the authority over satellites in orbit.
The FAA will use collision-avoidance data that the Pentagon is already collecting from a global array of radar facilities, optical sensors and advanced surveillance satellites in high-Earth orbit. Allies such as Australia, Canada, and Great Britain also provide intelligence.
Air Force Major Gen. David Thompson said he expects increased information collection, saying, "We're certainly expecting an explosion in the information and the data," to monitor objects in space. Twenty-two thousand objects are tracked today, and Thompson said around 200,000 will be tracked closely. Some are half the size of softballs, the Journal reported.
The FAA is also at work on keeping conventional aircraft safe while looking ahead to increased use of commercial spacecraft. Airspace restriction could cause airlines "a very significant impact," said Nield.
In June, Nield defended the work of the FAA to regulate the commercial spaceflight industry and to promote it, during a House subcommittee hearing, according to Space News. Nield pointed out that the FAA has been successful in its work toward safety, pointing out that, "Although the FAA has licensed or permitted 209 launches to date, there have never been any fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage to the general public."
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