We have systems for managing roads and the sky, but what about outer space?

With over 8,000 satellites being in Earth’s orbit since the space race began and another 20,000 due in the next decade, experts are now considering how best to manage this influx of space tech.

The problem emerged last week after a near collision between SpaceX and another satellite, Starlink 44. Luckily, this was avoided thanks to one of the satellites changing course.

Satellites can avoid fragments that are anticipated hours in advance, but the European Space Agency says it’s very rare for active satellites to be able to avoid hitting each other.

Neel Patel, space researcher and journalist for the MIT Technology Review, has mulled over that particular dilemma.

SpaceX was just the 60th of the 12,000 Elon Musk wants to launch into space. A handful of ASX small caps are also wanting to launch satellites including Kleos Space (ASX:KSS) and Sky and Space Global (ASX:SAS).

So how will the industry manage them? Boston-based tech author Andy Ihnatko suggested satellites would make autonomous decisions between each other and negotiate safe paths.

Patel, however, noted there was no real standard for measuring space traffic and argued there should be one. The catch for self-regulation is that all satellites had to be communicating with each other.

There are laws governing satellites in individual countries, but there is no one global standard for resolving conflicts.

“An intergovernmental space traffic body could be very useful,” Patel said. “But how would such a body actually police traffic and back up its regulations with punitive measures?

“We can’t just hand out tickets for anyone who violates the rules. There’d be no bite behind the bark.”


Space as a service?

Patel suggested making any such body a service rather than a regulator which would gradually become a voluntary standard.

“Even if they resent being told what to do, operators will get on board because they all agree on one thing: satellite collisions are bad for business, and bad for space,” he said.

“Ultimately this means that protecting one’s own assets means protecting others’ as well. Conflicts are sure to emerge when we start debating which countries and which businesses ought to move out of the way for others.

“But those spats are far preferable to the alternative, in which Earth’s orbit becomes so littered with debris from shattered orbiters that no one can safely use it.”