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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.

Tech

Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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