Op-ed: Preserving the freedom of space for all

By Eric Stern, MEng ’20 (ME)


This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash.

Starting in the 1960s, the world accelerated its focus on space exploration. Until recently, space exploration has not seen revolutionary developments. As we continue to invest more in space, we should focus on creating a safer and more sustainable environment.

To maintain this environment, the U.S. government should help establish standards in communication and positioning for objects sent into space, and they should enforce these standards against private and public companies to ensure the safe use of space now and into the future.

To this day, individuals, companies, and countries are mostly unrestricted in their activities in space. This lack of regulation in space closely parallels how the oceans were before the 1930s, when international laws and standards were adopted. These oceanic laws help govern the use of individuals and countries and provide international organizations with the ability to enforce issues such as disputes over economic zones and territorial boundaries. Space should be the next logical step.

Avoiding collisions in space

With an ever-increasing demand for the near-earth space environment, the need for collision avoidance has become increasingly more important. Threats of collisions are becoming a very pressing and difficult problem to address and it is essential that these dangers be mitigated. Single collisions can cause thousands of pieces of debris to rain out in every direction. These pieces passing by other satellites can act similar to bullets whizzing by; single impacts can render a satellite inoperable. This can cause an exponential effect where one satellite being destroyed can cause hundreds more to be damaged by its debris. Although some pieces of debris fall back to earth and some leave the gravitational pull of earth, much of the debris remains in orbit around Earth and is all but impossible to remove.

New positioning standards should be established to help mitigate these dangers of collision. There is a need to have smaller satellites avoid larger ones as well as have newer satellites avoid older ones. To help establish these standards new ideas should be considered such as “Space Navigator,” a reinforcement tool for obstacle avoidance (Gremyachikh, 2019). Resources like these could help automate the resolution of potential collisions without having to do so manually.

Ironically, for how sophisticated space is becoming, many collision avoidance maneuvers are still addressed by organizations contacting each other using antiquated email to determine the best course of action. Maintaining automated and enforced safety standards can help keep satellites at optimal orbits for their lifecycle and ensure they come down safely without causing damage to other satellites.

“Ironically, for how sophisticated space is becoming, many collision avoidance maneuvers are still addressed by organizations contacting each other using antiquated email to determine the best course of action.”

Creating new communication standards

To meet this need for safety, precise positioning and communication is essential. The current problem lies in the integration of new Public-Private Partnerships as these partnerships begin to play a much larger role in space (Stegeman, 2018). Until recently space has been almost exclusively dominated by government organizations. NASA, for example, still currently maintains a space-based communication and management network. This is done through a program called Space Communications and Navigation, or SCaN.

To make this desired integration and collaboration possible, new communication standards would have to be developed, not dissimilar to the internet. These changes have to be adaptable to meet the U.S. and global needs now and into the future (Gremyachikh, 2019).

One such technology to help improve space communication and management networks would be the use of Free Space Optics (FSO). FSO is a developing technology that has started to become more prevalent in today’s wireless communication needs and is already being integrated into existing SCaN infrastructure (Hamza, 2019). With the emergence of this light-based communication technology there is a growing need for standardization and classification.

Enforcing regulations for all organizations

The major difficulties lie in defining the requirements for private institutions and gaining their support. Requiring private institutions to adhere to new standards and technologies can help ensure stable space-based communication. Maintaining communication links with satellites and requiring high throughput satellite communications will help provide for a system that is more robust and ultimately self-sufficient.

These communication and positioning standards should be developed and implemented jointly by the US government and private enterprise. The US should work with other world organizations to help establish and enforce these communications and positioning regulations. With the barrier to entry in space getting lower and lower as satellites become cheaper to launch into space, the need to regulate these satellites is increasing rapidly. The U.S. and other world bodies should consider actions such as sanctions, taxes, tariffs or financial penalties for non-compliance. The sooner those standards can be established the easier it will be to maintain them.

It is not too late yet, but if current progress continues, there may be a time in the future when space is no longer a viable resource that can be used safely. Going forward space should be preserved and treated with the utmost care that it deserves. It should be treated no different than the oceans or any other precious natural resource. Only through cooperation and standardization can we achieve this.

“Going forward space should be preserved and treated with the utmost care that it deserves.”

About the author:

Erin Stern is a current Master of Engineering candidate at UC Berkeley studying Mechanical Engineering with a focus on the control of robotics and autonomous systems. Connect with Eric.


Gremyachikh, Leonid, et al. “Space Navigator: a Tool for the Optimization of Collision Avoidance Maneuvers.” Advances in the Astronautical Sciences, 6 Feb. 2019, arxiv.org.

Hamza, Abdelbaset S., et al. “Classification Framework for Free Space Optical Communication Links and Systems.” IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials, vol. 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1346–1382., doi:10.1109/comst.2018.2876805.

Stegeman, James, et al. “How Public Private Partnerships Enable NASA Future Space Communication Needs.” Nasa Technical Reports Server, 15 Oct. 2018.



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