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Are there traffic cops in space?

Answer: No, but maybe there should be.

A recent near-miss between two satellites is drawing attention to the increasing risk of collisions as we put more and more technology into orbit.

The two devices in question were the European Space Agency’s Aeolus craft and a Starlink satellite from SpaceX. According to the ESA, the agency was forced to execute a “collision avoidance maneuver” when its scientists determined that the two were on a collision course. However, the agency received no communication from SpaceX throughout the incident.

Gizmodo reports that the two agencies had previously been in contact when the satellites’ chance of collision was much lower, but when the probability that they would hit each other went up, a “bug” in SpaceX’s communication system prevented its operators from seeing the ESA’s message.

This incident, and the corresponding news coverage, has highlighted the issues that could arise from the current regulation, or lack thereof, of space traffic. According to Jessica West, a Project Ploughshares program officer and managing editor of its Space Security Index, “the problem that we’re facing in outer space is that the number of satellites and different operators in orbit is increasing drastically, but we don’t have rules for managing this traffic. There are no industry-wide standards for who moves, when, and how.”

Kate is a senior copy editor in Northern California. She holds a bachelor's degree in English with a minor in professional writing from the University of California, Davis.
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