Commercial Human Spaceflight Advances Prompt Calls for Space Safety Institute

Commercial human spaceflight has been a long-held dream, but now it is finally poised to become a reality. Companies including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are inching ever closer to taking private citizens into space, and there are serious plans for spaceports in several parts of the world, including Hawaii, the US, and Scotland, the UK.

But while the industry is advancing, the legal side of this fledgling commercial space industry remains underdeveloped, leading to calls for the development of an organisation to establish a framework for the safe operation of spaceports for human commercial spaceflights.

Writing in the journal New Space, Mclee Kerolle, from the United States International Institute of Space Law in Paris, France, has proposed the establishment of a Space Safety Institute recognised by the US congress and the United Nations.

This institute would “develop, enforce and adopt standards of excellence”, allowing the industry to develop while protecting it from liability and insurance risks.

“Currently, no international regulatory body exists to regulate the operation of spaceports,” he wrote. “This is unfortunate because while the advent of commercial human spaceflight industry is imminent, a majority of the focus from the legal community will be on regulating spaceflights and space access vehicles.

“However, the regulation of spaceports should be viewed in the same light as the rest of the commercial human spaceflight industry.”

The article focuses particularly on the establishment of a spaceport at the Kona International Airport in Keahole, Hawaii. At present, the spaceport’s development is subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Authority, however there are aspects to spaceport development that do not apply to conventional aviation operations.

A spacesuit design for commercial flights developed by SpaceX. Featured image: SpaceX’s proposed spaceport for its conceptual interplanetary transport system. All images courtesy of SpaceX

The institute would be designed to first and foremost ensure safety within the industry, so it would be important, according to Kerolle, to ensure it was made up of individuals with expertise in the field, rather than bureaucrats.

“To make sure that this flexibility is inherent in a Space Safety Institute, the organization should be composed of individuals within the industry as opposed to government officials who are not familiar with the commercial human spaceflight industry,” he wrote.

“As a result, this should protect the commercial human spaceflight industry to some liability exposure, as well as promote growth in the industry to ensure the industry’s survival.”

Asteroid passing Earth allows trackers to test impact warning systems

Asteroid trackers around the world will today test asteroid warning systems on an asteroid passing Earth.

The asteroid, named 2012 TC4, was first spotted 5 years ago, but will today pass Earth at a distance of about 42,000km (26,000 miles), which will bring it within the Moon’s orbit.

Its close approach to Earth will give trackers the chance to test a growing global observing network who will communicate and coordinate their optical and radar observations in a real scenario.

“This campaign is a team effort that involves more than a dozen observatories, universities and labs around the globe so we can collectively learn the strengths and limitations of our near-Earth object observation capabilities,” said Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, who is leading the 2012 TC4 campaign.

“This effort will exercise the entire system, to include the initial and follow-up observations, precise orbit determination, and international communications.”

Orbit prediction experts say the asteroid, which measures somewhere between 15m and 30m (50-100ft) in size, poses no risk of impact with Earth.

However, when a similar sized asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk in central Russia in 2013 it produced 30 times the kinetic energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and caused a shockwave that resulted in damage to buildings and injured more than a thousand people.

Observers around the world have been tracking TC4 as it approaches Earth and reporting their observations to the Minor Planet Center, where the conclusion has been made that it poses no threat and merely provides a platform to test for real asteroid impacts.

No asteroid currently known is predicted to impact Earth for the next 100 years.

Image courtesy of Alex Alishevskikh. Feature image courtesy of  NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Asteroid trackers are using this flyby to test the worldwide asteroid detection and tracking network, assessing our capability to work together in response to finding a potential real asteroid-impact threat,” said Michael Kelley, program scientist and NASA lead for the TC4 observation campaign.

Tens of professionally run telescopes across the globe will be taking ground-based observations from visible to near-infrared to radar.

Amateur astronomers may contribute more observations, but the asteroid will be very difficult for backyard astronomers to see, as current estimates are that it will reach a visual magnitude of only about 17 at its brightest, and it will be moving very fast across the sky.