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NASA and US Officials Call for More Space Regulations to Address Growing Concerns over Space Debris

NASA and US officials are calling for new space rules that will support commercial space stations, moon settlements, and address the growing problem of space debris. With the expected opening of the International Space Station (ISS) to commercial astronauts and activities, more people and businesses will have access to space than ever before. This article discusses the current state of space law and highlights the need for more regulations to ensure the safety and success of future space exploration missions.

The Need for New Space Regulations

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy urged the users' advisory group to consider recommending a fast refresh of space regulations to avoid "future barriers" to space exploration. The Artemis program, which aims to put people and commercial payloads on the moon in 2025, will require new regulations to support commercial space stations and moon settlements. As more people and businesses have access to space, the need for new regulations becomes more apparent.

Current Space Law

Most spacefaring countries have signed on to the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty that governs international space activities. The treaty, however, was negotiated in the 1960s when government activities dominated the scene. More recently, several dozen members of the NASA-led Artemis Accords have also agreed to peaceful work in the 2020s and beyond, and to eventually establish new norms for lunar exploration.

China's practice of letting huge rockets fall to Earth uncontrolled has been condemned by the US Joe Biden administration. Russia's decision to do anti-satellite test in orbit in 2021 created space debris that threatened not only the ISS, but SpaceX Starlink satellites that supply essential Internet service for remote populations on Earth. SpaceX itself has come under criticism for creating bright satellites already interfering with astronomy and Indigenous observations, although they recently agreed to mitigations with the National Science Foundation.

The Role of Government Departments

Government departments like the Department of Commerce are taking a more active role in regulating space activities. The Trump administration's Space Policy Directive-3 will have Commerce eventually take over most of the space tracking system now managed by the Department of Defense. However, considerable challenges remain, such as getting countries like China to abide by the system, providing timely warnings about space debris, and cleaning up space junk.

The Importance of Operator Responsibility

Richard DalBello, director of the Department of Commerce's Office of Space Commerce, suggested adding an element of "operator responsibility" into the current space law regime may encourage companies and countries alike to work together. The users' advisory group will likely come together several more times before the 2024 federal election cycle to make recommendations to the National Space Council.

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