Saturday, June 12, 2021

Chinese space situational awareness and traffic management regulations and procedures

China's active (orange) and inactive (blue) satellites in low-
Earth orbit today (source). They plan to launch many more,
including a 12,992-satellite broadband Internet constellation.
In a recent issue of the Dongfang Hour Newsletter, Blaine Curcio pointed out that China's powerful State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) had published a notice intended to promote the orderly development of microsatellites and strengthen safety management.

The notice defines microsatellites as being below 1,000 kilograms, which would include those making up China's planned GwoWang/SatNet broadband constellation. Since this is slated to be a very large (12,992 satellite), it will exacerbate the problem of potential collisions in low-Earth orbit.

The notice lists 24 requirements many of which have to do with space situational awareness and traffic management:

  • Microsatellites should have mature and reliable de-orbit capability and avoid long-term occupation of common orbits. Satellites below 2,000 kilometers should de-orbit within 25 years of the end of the mission and those over 2,000 should rise to the graveyard orbit.
  • Satellite operators should take necessary technical measures to avoid the generation of separate fragments in orbit, including falling off, discarding, throwing, etc., and avoid explosions of energy storage components such as fuel tanks and batteries.
  • A  debris-mitigation plan should accompany the application for a license to launch. It shall include theoretical analysis, technical measures to be taken, effect prediction, etc, and meet the requirements mentioned above.
  • When a microsatellite is launched into orbit or its status in orbit changes, the owner shall inform the National Defense Science and Industry Bureau.
  • Thirty days before microsatellites carry out operations such as orbit transfer, rendezvous and docking, debris removal, and on-orbit maintenance, the operator shall notify the relevant national authorities. If a major security risk occurs during operation, it shall be terminated or immediately adjusted.
  • Relevant national departments will announce early warnings of possible microsatellite collisions, review evasion strategies, research risk, and recommend mitigation action.
  • Microsatellite operators should carry out collision avoidance maneuvers when discovering the risk of collision and report the situation and action taken to the relevant national authorities within one hour of the discovery of the risk.
  • Microsatellite operators should report collisions to the relevant national authorities within one hour.
  • In the event of a major emergency or emergency response event, the microsatellite operator should obey the overall management policies of the relevant state departments.
  • State departments are responsible for the daily monitoring and evaluation of the orbit status of microsatellites and de-orbit activities. When the orbit or status of microsatellite changes, the operator shall promptly inform the relevant state departments. 
  • For those who fail to report relevant information as required, the state department may take appropriate measures.
  • Microsatellites with mission objectives such as technology verification and scientific experiments have a relatively short business cycle and are encouraged to operate in orbits below 350 kilometers in order to facilitate rapid de-orbit after completion of the mission.

Disclaimer: The above is an edited version of a Google translation of the SASTIND notice and I welcome corrections, but the main point is that China acknowledges the importance of space safety. That's good news, but preserving the space commons will require agreement on regulations and procedures among all governments and companies that operate satellites and track orbiting objects.

SpaceX will soon have reusable rockets that can launch hundreds of satellites at a time and sometime after that China will be capable of the same. Chinese state-owned enterprises and at least one private company are working on reusability and they have the opportunity to learn from videos of SpaceX's soft-landing failures and publically available analysis from SpaceX and journalists like the Everyday Astronaut. The clock is ticking.

Update 6/14/2021

Andrew Jones has reported that the development plans for the 14th five-year plan period (2021-25) of the China National Space Administration includes a section on "expanding space cooperation and enhancing the common well-being of humankind".

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