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New Trump directive seeks to avert major space debris problem

SpaceX nighttime launch on March 6, 2018.
SpaceX nighttime rocket launch on March 6, 2018. Credit: SpaceX

As private companies plan to send thousands of satellites into space to expand broadband internet services and for other uses, the Trump administration is taking steps to ensure that space debris doesn't get out of control.

Why it matters: We are beginning to see a large uptick in the number and diversity of satellites being launched into space by governments and private companies, such as Elon Musk's SpaceX. If no one modernizes the rules governing space, then there's the potential for overcrowding at various altitudes above Earth. This overcrowding could hold back the burgeoning space industry, and threaten national security.

What's next: On Monday, the president signed a space policy directive that gives various government agencies clearer roles in governing space.

“The space operating environment are becoming increasingly crowded. Orbital debris poses a growing threat to space operations."
— Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, on a call with reporters.

The details: The new policy directive requires that updates be made to orbital debris mitigation practices, as well as new guidelines for designing and operating satellites.

  • Under the directive, the Pentagon will continue to maintain the official catalog of all space-based assets, while the Commerce Department will take on new responsibilities in fostering the development of the private sector space industry.
    • For example, Commerce will be the agency that the public can go to for information on satellites currently in space or planned to be launched (unless they're classified military missions).
  • Commerce, which houses an eclectic mix of agencies, such as the Census Bureau and NOAA, will also be one of the main agencies for private sector space companies to go to for oversight of their planned launches.

What they're saying: “We’re basically getting everyone in their lanes," Pace said of the new division of oversight between departments.

President Trump, when signing the directive, alluded to the billionaires whose companies are launching rockets to space, such as Musk and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin, saying: "I always said, rich guys seem to like rockets. All of those rich guys dying for our real estate to launch -- we won't charge you too much, just go ahead."