Who has the right of way in space? So far, it’s NASA

An agreement between SpaceX and NASA right before another Starlink launch should help in managing satellite traffic.
By | Published: April 7, 2021 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
In January of 2020, two decommissioned satellites orbiting Earth made a really close pass. Traveling towards each other with a combined speed of 33,000 mph (53,000 kph) the two barely missed each other, coming within 210 feet (65 meters) between them — and perhaps as close a few meters.

To make sure an event like this doesn’t happen with any of NASA’s satellites and the internet-providing Starlink satellites from SpaceX, the two groups have agreed to share information about where their spacecraft are flying — and also settled the question of who between them has the right of way.

That would be NASA, according to the safety agreement, announced March 18 in a NASA press release

“SpaceX has agreed its Starlink satellites will autonomously or manually maneuver to ensure the missions of NASA science satellites and other assets can operate uninterrupted from a collision avoidance perspective,” according to the NASA release.

NASA further agrees that if a potential collision arises, it will not move spacecraft to ensure that the two satellites don’t accidentally maneuver into each other.

No, you first

With the commercial space sector booming, the issue of avoiding satellite smash-ups in space is also going to grow.

The number of satellite payloads launched in 2020 jumped to 1,261 — more than twice as many as in 2019 (522), according to statistics maintained by astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The 833 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched last year account for most of that increase. SpaceX has continued its rapid build-up in 2021; its most recent launch of 60 more satellites was on March 23, bringing the current Starlink constellation to over 1,300 satellites.

To help address the issue, in December 2020, NASA released a handbook for aerospace companies, outlining what the agency had found to be best practices for avoiding a collision in low-Earth orbit.

But measures like this guidebook and the agreement with SpaceX are just the beginning of grappling with the problem of satellite traffic management. Eventually, a more comprehensive solution will be needed, McDowell told Astronomy.

“I think these bilateral agreements are a start but in the long run there really needs to be an international ‘space traffic control,’” said McDowell.