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  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.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”