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To solve space traffic woes, look to the high seas

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To solve space traffic woes, look to the high seas


Can you start off by giving me the lay of the land of space traffic management and space situational awareness today? How would you evaluate how well the world currently does these things? 

Space traffic management is very much an emerging field. We’re in the early stages, where the discussions in the international community are in the development of norms and standards of behavior. The fundamental purpose of space traffic management is to prevent collisions in space. Collisions, by their nature, are debris-generating events, which cause the domain itself to become polluted and less safe for future actors. So it’s twofold—it’s not just that a collision damages satellites; a collision also causes long-term damage to the environment itself. And we see that very clearly in all of the evaluations of the [2009] Iridium-Cosmos collision.

Space situational awareness is a different thing—it’s about providing data. Different countries and companies around the world detect where these objects are in orbit and share what’s out there. For 50 years, you didn’t really need much information other than [the location of debris so it can be avoided]. But as the orbital domain becomes more congested with junk, it’s not just a question of “How do you avoid debris?” It’s now “How do you interact with other [satellite] operators up there?” When there’s two maneuverable satellites that want to be in the same place at the same time, that’s when you get to that question of management rather than space situational awareness. 

Along those lines, when there is a possible collision between two objects, what’s the general process in place to prevent a disaster from ensuing? Is there a quick outline you can provide?

I’ve been on a quest to find an authoritative reference that talks about the process from end to end. I wish I could say, “Go to this resource, and it’ll show you what happens from the time they look for a close approach to the time that the decision is made for whether or not to maneuver a satellite.” But it’s a bit opaque. Different operators have different internal processes that they don’t necessarily want to share. 

The US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Command Squadron is constantly watching the skies and reevaluating the situation every eight hours. If they detect that a close approach is possible, they’ll issue a conjunction alert to the owner-operator of the satellite. Then it goes into the hands of the owner-operator to decide what to do with that information. And then the 18th will continue to monitor things. The projection of where something might be in space varies wildly based on the object, how it’s shaped, how it reacts to the atmosphere around it … If there’s any intention by the operator to move it on purpose, that changes the observations as well.

You’ve argued that while air traffic control might seem like a sensible analogue to space traffic control for obvious reasons—namely, that it’s about the prevention of collisions—it is actually an inappropriate model, and that maritime law actually provides a better one. 

All of the world’s international airspace is designated to a single entity state for the purposes of providing air traffic control services. So, for example, the US controls 5 million square miles of domestic airspace but 24 million square miles of international airspace. They are the sole authority to provide those air traffic control services in that airspace by virtue of the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization]. 

Space doesn’t have anything like that. But the high seas don’t have that either. What the high seas have is a collection of agreed-upon rules of behavior and the authority over each vessel: the state under which the vessel flag is flown. There’s not a high-seas authority that says yes or no, you can operate here and you can’t operate here. Everyone has access to this shared resource, and the principles of freedom of the sea include the freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, freedom to lay cables underneath, freedom of fishing. Within the maritime agreements, there is freedom to conduct commercial activities. This is different from airspace, which historically has been an area purely for transportation. 

The orbital domain is not solely for transportation [either]. It’s the domain in which the commercial activity occurs: telecommunications, remote sensing, etc.

Of course, maritime law is also meant to prevent collisions on the high seas. Collision regulations, or colregs, dictate what’s supposed to happen if two vessels are [on course for] a head-on collision: who has priority to maneuver, what to do if something happens in a narrow channel … These sort of principles are laid out very clearly. They have very clear applicability to the challenges we’re facing in the space domain. There are very clear parallels. Whereas if we take the aviation model, we’re really trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

Is there pushback or disagreement on the idea of using maritime law as the inspiration for space law? Is the general consensus moving toward this idea?

I think it’s trending that way, by virtue [of the fact] that it’s really the only viable path forward, but there is always discussion. Having someone or some singular body decide what we can do is not a realistic outcome, given the nature of the space domain. We don’t do space traffic like air traffic because it’s not simply a safety question. It is a diplomatic question and an economic question as well. 

Giving control of space traffic to one regulatory body would be easy, like the 18th Space Control Squadron, which provides these services free of charge. But there are countries that are suspicious of that [idea]. And then, of course, there is the issue of classified data. So you get into these complexities of trust—you know, if there was one trusted global entity, then sure, we could do that. [But] there aren’t any that are trusted by all, and trust is something that changes over time. 

So the path forward is to create a way for that information to be shared and trusted. For example, I’m working on a project where we’re talking about blockchain as an enabler for trusted information sharing. By nature of the blockchain, you can determine who inputted the information and validate them as a legitimate participant, and that information can’t be altered by a third party. 

Space is often described as a new kind of Wild West—lawless and unregulated, and anything goes. How can a framework for something like space traffic management even get established if there’s also just no set pathway for establishing rules to begin with? 

I would argue that space isn’t actually the Wild West. There is an obligation in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty for states to supervise objects that they permit to launch from their countries. So it’s not unregulated; it’s not completely free. It’s just we haven’t agreed on what that actually means for continuing supervision. 

The Iridium-Cosmos accident was a wake-up call. It sparked a lot of activity, like the development of on-orbit servicing technology to dispose of big objects that remain in space, and also the development of commercial sensor networks so that we can have better and better space situational awareness information. 

The next big catalyst, I believe, is megaconstellations. We’re seeing more [potential collision] alerts between two maneuverable satellites, which is a solvable problem if we have a set of rules. This creates a lot of pressure on the system to start reaching these agreements. Capitalism is a pretty effective motivator. When people see more and more economic opportunities in popular orbits, then balancing access to those orbits becomes a motivator as well.

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans


1 The Twitter Files weren’t the bombshell Elon Musk billed them as 
His carelessness triggered the harassment of some of Twitter’s content moderators, too. (WP $)
+ The files didn’t violate the First Amendment, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ Hate speech has exploded on the platform since he took over. (NYT $)
+ Journalists are staying on Twitter—for now. (Vox)
+ The company’s advertising revenue isn’t looking very healthy. (NYT $)

2 Russia is trying to freeze Ukrainians by destroying their electricity 
It’s the country’s vulnerable who will suffer the most. (Economist $)
+ How Ukraine could keep the lights on. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is at a crossroads
Investors, executives, and advocates are unsure what’s next. (NYT $)
+ FTX and the Alameda Research trading firm were way too close. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Taylor Swift fans are suing Ticketmaster
They’re furious they weren’t able to buy tickets in the botched sale last month. (The Verge)

5 The internet is having a midlife crisis
What is it for? And more importantly, who is it for? (Slate $)
+ Tim Berners-Lee wanted the internet to have an ‘oh, yeah?’ button. (Slate $)

6 We need a global deal to safeguard the natural world
COP15, held this week in Montreal, is our best bet to thrash one out. (Vox)
+ Off-grid living is more viable these days than you may think. (The Verge)

7 What ultra-dim galaxies can teach us about dark matter  
We’re going to need new telescopes to seek more of them out. (Wired $)
+ Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has some big plans for space. (Reuters)
+ A super-bright satellite could hamper our understanding of the cosmos. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to watch Mars disappear behind the moon. (New Scientist $)

8 An elite media newsletter wants to cover “power, money, and ego.”
It promises unparalleled access to prolific writers—and their audiences. (New Yorker $)
+ How to sign off an email sensibly. (Economist $) 

9 The metaverse has a passion for fashion 👗
Here’s what its best-dressed residents are wearing. (WSJ $)

10 We’ve been sending text messages for 30 years 💬
Yet we’re still misunderstanding each other. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“There is certainly a rising sense of fear, justifiable fear. And I would say almost horror.”

—Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, tells the Washington Post she fears that antisemitism has become normalized in the US, in the light of Kanye West’s recent comments praising Hitler.

The big story

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles


Research groups estimate that the costs could fall from around $200 per megawatt-hour to between $58 and $120 by 2030. That would leave floating offshore wind more expensive than solar and onshore wind, but it could still serve an important role in an overall energy portfolio. 

The technology is improving as well. Turbines themselves continue to get taller, generating more electricity and revenue from any given site. Some research groups and companies are also developing new types of floating platforms and delivery mechanisms that could make it easier to work within the constraints of ports and bridges. 

The Denmark-based company Stiesdal has developed a modular, floating platform with a keel that doesn’t drop into place until it’s in the deep ocean, enabling it to be towed out from relatively shallow ports. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco startup Aikido Technologies is developing a way of shipping turbines horizontally and then upending them in the deep ocean, enabling the structures to duck under bridges en route. The company believes its designs provide enough clearance for developers to access any US port. Some 80% of these ports have height limits owing to bridges or airport restrictions.

A number of federal, state, and local organizations are conducting evaluations of California and other US ports, assessing which ones might be best positioned to serve floating wind projects and what upgrades could be required to make it possible.

Government policies in the US, the European Union, China, and elsewhere are also providing incentives to develop offshore wind turbines, domestic manufacturing, and supporting infrastructure. That includes the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law this summer.

Finally, as for California’s permitting challenges, Hochschild notes that the same 2021 law requiring the state’s energy commision to set offshore wind goals also requires it to undertake the long-term planning necessary to meet them. That includes mapping out a strategy for streamlining the approval process.

For all the promise of floating wind, there’s little question that ensuring it’s cost-competitive and achieving the targets envisioned will require making massive investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and more, and building big projects at a pace that the state hasn’t shown itself capable of in the recent past.

If it can pull it off, however, California could become a leading player in a critical new clean energy sector, harnessing its vast coastal resources to meet its ambitious climate goals.

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information


It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

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