The episode you’re about to hear is being hosted by our student fellows. Our Student Fellows are an interdisciplinary group, representing colleges and specializations across the University of Nebraska. Morgan Armstrong and Mitchell Clark spoke with Dr. Casey Handmer and Laura Cummings about the increase of satellites placed in lower earth orbit and how the congestion impacts space operations, communications, and our daily lives.
Casey was born and raised in Australia, where he completed undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics. Emigrating to the US in 2010, he earned a PhD in theoretical physics, followed by stints at Hyperloop One and NASA JPL. In 2021 he founded Terraform Industries to capture atmospheric carbon and convert it into cheaper natural gas at gigaton scale.
Laura is a Colorado native and University of Colorado graduate, with degrees in Astronomy and International Affairs. After transplanting to the East Coast, Laura earned her law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center. Today, Laura is the Regulatory Affairs Counsel for Astroscale U.S., supporting policy advocacy and overseeing licensing of Astroscale’s upcoming geostationary servicing satellite – LEXI.
Disclaimer: This transcript is auto-generated and has not been thoroughly reviewed for completeness or accuracy.
[00:00:00] Laura Cummings: This is Tech Refactored. I'm one of your regular guest hosts, Elsbeth Magilton, the Executive Director of Nebraska Governance and Technology Center at the University of Nebraska. The episode you're about to hear is being hosted by two of our student fellows. Our fellows are a diverse and interdisciplinary group representing colleges and specializations across the university.
The goal of the Student Fellows Initiative is to familiarize students with the nuances of working with professionals from other academic backgrounds, incorporating their perspectives and vocabularies in order to better inform their own work. This semester, we challenged them to produce an episode of Tech Refactored on a subject of their chosen.
We hope you enjoyed this special episode of Tech Refactored, hosted and produced by our student fellows, Morgan and Mitchell. [00:01:00]
[00:01:05] Mitchell Clark: Today we're joined by Dr. Casey Handmer. Casey was born and raised in Australia, where he completed undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics immigrating to the United States in 2010, here into PhD in theoretical physics, followed by stints at Hyperloop One and NASA JPL. In 2021, he found a Terraform Industries to capture atmosphere, carbon, and converted into cheaper natural gas, a gigaton.
[00:01:28] Morgan Armstrong: We're also joined by Laura Cummings. Laura is a Colorado native and University of Colorado graduate with degrees in astronomy and international affairs. After transplanting to the East coast, Laura earned her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. Today Laura is the Regulatory Affairs Council for Astro Scale, US supporting policy advocacy and overseeing licensing of as Azure Scale's upcoming geos, stationary servicing satellite Lexi.
[00:01:56] Mitchell Clark: Laura and Casey, welcome to the show.
[00:01:59] Casey Handmer: [00:02:00] Thanks. Glad to be here.
[00:02:02] Mitchell Clark: So today we're here to talk about. How the regulation of low earth orbit, uh, intersects with, um, engineering and the things that we as a society have kind of coming down the pipe in the next couple of years. So before we hop into it, I, we'd like to know a little bit more about how you personally came to be involved in the space.
[00:02:27] Morgan Armstrong: So Laura, what drew you to going into space law?
[00:02:33] Laura Cummings: Yeah, so just thanks again. Thanks for having me. Um, so I guess like a lot of undergraduate graduates, um, I got out of school and realized I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I did know three main things. The first was that I had a mind then kind of a skill set for crafting organizational structure.
The second was that I had a pretty good technical understanding of space due to my astronomy degree. And the third was that I [00:03:00] wanted to keep going with some type of international scoped work. Cause that's just really fascinating. Um, and so having said that, I got out a couple months, no idea what I wanted to do.
And then at one point somebody said space law, and it's stuck. And I was really excited about space law because I think it's a very unique profession. Um, a once in a lifetime profession that offers a chance to build structures for the future. And if we build them well, now we can go further faster, and we don't have to undo them later.
[00:03:32] Morgan Armstrong: That's awesome. And a little bit of a Captain Marvel quote in there, so I also like that.
[00:03:40] Mitchell Clark: Casey, I couldn't, I couldn't help myself. But as an engineer, I had to ask, would you describe yourself as a physicist or an engineer?
[00:03:49] Casey Handmer: I think I'm a bit of both. I'm, I'm qualified as an engineer and I'm not, uh, sorry- I'm qualified as a physicist and I'm not certified as an engineer. Um, but I should add, I'm only here to represent, um, my own [00:04:00] lousy opinions.
Uh, and certainly not those of any of former employees, including JPL who has their own specialists and, uh, space communication stuff.
[00:04:08] Mitchell Clark: A good caveat. Um, how did you wind up work? What, what, what made you decide theoretical astrophysics is what your, uh, your doctorate was in, Is that
[00:04:17] Casey Handmer: correct? That's correct, yes.
How'd you end up doing that? Um, How'd you get there? Yeah. I was interested in a lot of different things and I was admitted at. Uh, at Caltech and basically encouraged to visit all the different laboratories, and that one was the one that seemed the most interesting to me at the time, um, which is one that I did.
[00:04:37] Mitchell Clark: Makes perfect sense. Do you enjoy it?
[00:04:43] Casey Handmer: uh, through astrophysics? Yeah, it was, it was a good run. Uh, when I was there, I was, um, doing it for about five years and, um, and then I, I made the mistake of, of taking a, a tour that was offered at, at Caltech. Uh, to go and check out what was going on at SpaceX, um, in nearby Hawthorne.
Uh, and I [00:05:00] went, and that was about 2011 and we got to have a 45 minute q and a with Elon and, and I was like, Oh, that's pretty cool . And, um, as an Australian, you know, Australia didn't really have a space program when I was younger and um, I always assumed it was something that happened to other people. And I suddenly realized that I was kind of, In the middle of JPL and SpaceX, a bunch of other companies, and I was like, Maybe I should work on that.
But it's, it's basically impossible until you've got, um, a green card and I didn't have one, so I had to keep my head down and graduate so I could have a hope of getting one. And then once I got one, I was able to go and work at jpl, which I did for almost four years. That's awesome.
[00:05:30] Mitchell Clark: That's awesome. The, the true American dream, right?
Um, exactly. So with that background in place, um, Let's, let's, let's hop into this, um, for the sake of those who might not know, uh, how about does, do, do, would either of you claim to have a good definition for what Leo is? Cause I believe, uh, legally there is a specific boundary line, uh, and I don't know if that agrees with what it, a physicist would say.
[00:06:00] Laura Cummings: I'm gonna, I'm gonna let the physicist go first.
[00:06:01] Casey Handmer: Oh, I was gonna say, um, well, low, low earth orbit starts, uh, above the earth at the lowest orbit that you can sustain an orbit around the earth without the atmosphere pulling you down, um, which is a couple of hundred kilometers. And then, and then it goes up to around a thousand kilometers depending on who you ask.
Uh, and roughly speaking, satellites that are in lower orbit will deorbit, uh, due to atmospheric drag within. You know, a couple of days to, um, a millennium or so.
[00:06:30] Laura Cummings: Yeah. And that's, um, about the same. I've, I've seen kind of numbers all over the board for the same, Leo starts essentially where you can maintain an orbit and then end, um, I've seen, I pulled from nasa, there was about 2000 kilometers.
Or 1,200 miles for those people who use miles. That was the last time, Ill say Miles, this whole conversation. Um, I've seen other ones that go up to like 10,000 kilometers, but that might be kinda high. Um, and if you get into some of the [00:07:00] kind of regulatory structures, so we're talking spectrum or things like that, instead of using LEO or Low Earth orbit, they'll actually refer to non geos stationary orbit and geo-stationary orbit, so NGSO and GSO. Um, and so they kind of combined a LEO and mid orbit neo into one, um, that way. But yeah, so around, we'll say around like zero to kilometers, I guess-
[00:07:30] Morgan Armstrong: so to go off of that, to talking about this low earth orbit, um, what's the importance of low earth orbit? What, what happens in it?
Um, why are we, why are we even talking about.
[00:07:44] Laura Cummings: Yeah, so today we use the low Earth orbit for a lot of things that actually impact, um, our lives here on earth. So one that people probably know from childhood is the International Space Station. So that orbit's around 400 kilometers. And recently we've had the addition of [00:08:00] the Chinese Space Station, and that's actually about 340 to 450 kilometers.
Um, and so just a little bit closer. There you can protect humans a little bit more from the radiation that you may experience further out in orbit. Um, additionally we have a bunch of satellites that are in Leo. You can things by having essentially a satellite that every, or. So give you that quick revisit time.
Um, and with the constellations, like Starling and One Web, we're actually starting to see low Earth orbit used for internet. And the benefit of that is because the orbit is so close to earth, you have a really low latency with your internet. So you're approaching almost fiber like capabilities from space so you can connect a bunch of people without having to lay fiber around the world.
[00:08:53] Mitchell Clark: That actually I, I, that that's, uh, most people don't realize a vacuum is arguably the best, uh, [00:09:00] transmission medium for electronic signals that there is. So, uh, it's, it's quite economically well suited to that. Um, but that, that opens up a, a great segue. Um, Casey, you've, you've written quite a bit. How, how old is your blog at this
[00:09:13] Casey Handmer: point?
Um, if you go into the depths of time, it dates back to the mid 2000, like 2004. Wow.
[00:09:20] Mitchell Clark: Okay. Okay. Uh, uh, so, so maybe a better question is, uh, when did you start kinda, uh, digging into some of the, the misconceptions around, uh, what we can, what, what's the
[00:09:32] Casey Handmer: can expect from Leo? I think I started in like 2017 or 2018.
Um, I'd written a lot about space stuff by that point already. Um, and I was just having these conversations over and over again, um, different topics and I was like, I've got stuff to say here that I can't fit in a. Um, and, and I also wanted to kind of promote a way of thinking about these questions. It was a lot less kind of argumentative and a lot more kind of like, Well, you know, this is a hard problem.
This is why people argue about it. This is why we don't understand. This is what we don't know. And, uh, and kind of go from there. Um, so yeah, I started there and, and it turned [00:10:00] out to be an unexpectedly rich goldmine of, uh, of, uh, material to write blogs from. I think I've about 150,000 words at last count.
Something like that. Yeah. You, you turned it into a book. Am I remember? Yeah. The most recent book is, is kind of a collation of a lot of those blogs, um, you know, editing and improve images and things like that. So,
[00:10:19] Mitchell Clark: I'll leave this as an open question, but for the sake of separating the fact from science fiction, um, well, how, how about one of the easy ones, uh, space mining, Right. Does that, does that matter for Leo?
[00:10:32] Casey Handmer: Well, there's not much to mine in Leo. Um, potentially you could, you could do space mining on the moon or on asteroids or on Mar or something. Um, and I think if you were living on the moon or on Mar, it would make a lot of sense to, uh, to do, to do mining there, to obtain materials locally.
Mm-hmm. , uh, depending on the material. Um, but I think when people talk about space mining, they're saying, Oh, well, you know, we should go out and grab an asteroid that's made it. Gold and then bring it back to earth. And uh, you know, the mass of the asteroid multiplied by how much gold is worth will be quad [00:11:00] aire.
Um, but it kind of neglects a lot of things about the, you know, the reason that gold is valuable is cuz it's scarce and it's actually really damn hard to go out to asteroids and grab them and bring them back to earth. Um, I, the last time anyone tried it wiped up the dinosaurs. You know, I, I don't think that was deliberate actually, but, um, yeah, there's complexity's involved there.
Um, and. Kind of the challenge is like, for almost any material you can imagine, um, it's either not valuable enough, uh, to justify going into space, to getting it, uh, to get it. Or there's the, the total volume that's required by humanity is so low that the total size of the market isn't big enough, uh, to justify the effort, right?
So it's like a handful of things out there that cost a hundred thousand dollars a gram or something, but. We're not surprised you to learn that. We don't use very much of that. And so the total, you know, there's not, not enough money in that, in that area. Um, because it turns out that the earth is made of all the same stuff that all the asteroids are made of cuz the earth has formed out of asteroids that collided together a long time ago and sometimes more recently.
Um, and so for almost all these materials, uh, it's almost always easier just to kind of. Start turning over shuffles of [00:12:00] dirt in the backyard. Um, and you find much the same stuff in much the same kind of concentrations that you would in asteroids. And it's right there, you know, under an atmosphere you can breathe and with a local labor market and local market that you can sell into and, you know, thousands of local suppliers that can provide machinery equipment.
So it's a, it's a tough problem cuz everyone wants to think of a really good reason to go to space. But I just don't think that that's the reason.
[00:12:21] Morgan Armstrong: So to go off of that, um, since space mining, Isn't necessarily a problem for low earth orbit. What are some of the technical challenges and environmental challenges that are facing Leo and, uh, open this up to either of you.
[00:12:36] Laura Cummings: Yeah, I would say, uh, kind of one of the biggest one, and the one that springs to mind is really orbital degree. Um, especially after the recent ASAP test we've had and everything, there's really a proliferation of objects in lower or. Um, so even in the past five years, we've seen a drastic increase in the amount of active satellites on orbit.
We actually have around 5,000 active [00:13:00] satellites in lower Earth orbit now. Um, and for the first time in history, the majority of those are commercial satellites. They're actually not government owned. Um, but then amongst all of that, you have about 6,000 tons of space debris. Um, so that's just kind of that mass,
um, and of those we can track about 24,500. That was a 2022 estimate from Leo Labs. Um, but there's still thousands more that are smaller than the size of a softball that we actually can't see. And so part of the problem is you have so many objects, um, and then you have objects that you can't see.
And so even if you have an active spacecraft that has maneuvering capabilities, There's a possibility that you won't even see the debris coming your way and that it can still disable your satellite. Um, and so just briefly circling back to the, okay, maybe we don't have mining in low earth orbit, but one of the exciting possibilities now, [00:14:00] because again, you have that six tons of.
Electronics, mass materials, metals in orbit. We're actually starting to see the business case for recycling in orbit. And so if you can get over the the legal questions of going up and grabbing someone else's junk and have the technical capabilities to do that, there are companies that are developing the capacity to take those kind of materials that you have up.
And recycle them into other materials. Um, and then you see a secondary market for those products. Like I think there's a, an upcoming potential for, there's a company that wants to take pure aluminum rods and somehow use that as an energy source. I have no idea how that works. Um, but if you have a lot of metals up there, you can have, um, kind of a way to.
Address the problem of orbital debris while also making that material useful. That is so cool.
[00:14:57] Casey Handmer: I would just add to that, that not all [00:15:00] low earth orbits are created equal with respect to orbital. So like, uh, one of the major concerns with the Iridium Constellation, for example, is that, um, is that its orbit is about 800 something kilometers and it intersects with an existing field of debris from a Chinese anti anti-satellite test.
And that's high up enough that those big bits are gonna stay up there for a thousand years. But once you're down around the, um, The, where this, uh, space station is around 400 kilometers, you know, you have to be an exceptionally dense chunk of something big to stay up for more than a year. Um, and like Space Station itself has toboo constantly, or it would, it would fall back down.
Uh, and you can even go lower than that. You can, you know, the, uh, the Europeans have flown a satellite down around 250 kilometers, uh, and that thing Reed, like a week after it ran outta gas. . Um, and so I think what we'll see in the future is that, um, is that regulatory regime will recognize that it's the potential long term costs of operating really large constellations at really low altitudes is much lower because if something goes wrong or machines break down or whatever, these things just kind of flatter and, and then burn up within weeks instead of.[00:16:00]
Centuries, Um, it's, it's like every hundred kilometers further up is 10 times longer to deorbit. Um, so yeah.
[00:16:09] Laura Cummings: Just building quickly off what Casey just said, we've actually seen companies that have responded to this logistics as well. Um, the primary example is SpaceX with their constellation. They filed a modification to actually bring multiple shells that they were going to deploy of their satellites down.
To around, uh, I think it's between four 60 and eight 20 kilometers. Because then even if they, for some reason have a, a de-orbit failure, just the natural drag of the atmosphere at that point will make it so that that doesn't stay in space for centuries or longer actually de-orbit 10 to 26 kilometers.
[00:16:47] Morgan Armstrong: Can I ask a follow up question?
Yeah. Um, so that the listeners can understand. A satellite would go through if it's deorbiting in the atmosphere, what happens to that debris,[00:17:00]
[00:17:01] Laura Cummings: Like if its at a lower altitude? Turns into dust.
[00:17:05] Casey Handmer: It doesn't matter what altitude it's at. Um, sooner or later it will run into the atmosphere at, at 25 times the speed of sound and like the, the metal that's made of boils into gas. And sometimes, sometimes little bits will survive to the surface. So every now and then, like bits of space don't fall down and, and like land on some farmer's field.
Um, at sometimes like surprising pieces like you wouldn't expect, but, but generally speaking, there, there are things that are made of materials that have very high melting points, and then the material itself, the object itself is also very low density. Um, so that it would slow down at a high altitude, if that makes any sense, rather than like bobbing down into lower atmosphere and then getting super, super hot and burning up really quickly.
Um, so like sometimes. What are called C'S composite over pressure vessels, which are like glorified scuba tanks, will land on the surface of the earth, but it's, it's extremely unusual. Like this happens almost every day in China or Russia where they launch their rockets, overland, and the boosters come back down and crash [00:18:00] onto villages and things.
But it's, it's extremely unusual for abital debris to be recovered on the surface of the earth. It's like maybe you can count on, on, on, on your hands like 10 times it's ever been, ever been found. Something like that. It's actually, it's pretty. Uh, and if you ever find it, of course, don't, don't go poker with a stick.
It might, you might have hine on board, but, um, . But, uh, but yeah, you, you call a number and someone will come and collect it, um, and, and take it away. But it's, yeah, it's, it's almost like finding a meteorite in your backyard. It's very unusual and
[00:18:27] Laura Cummings: that, Kind of really developed, I think too, with the commercialization of lower orbit, where you have a lot of these commercial items that are reentering, um, in the policies here I've heard that called Design for Demise.
So essentially you wanna make sure that everything will completely burn up when it's reentering, so you don't land on someone.
[00:18:45] Casey Handmer: Well, I should add that the pieces that are coming down, um, are, are falling a terminal velocity. Like, so the stuff that like falls down in someone farmer's field thing, it's, it's falling at, you know, it would really hurt if it hit you on the head, but it's not, it's not coming down at like hypersonic velocity, like a meteor yard impact that creates a big crater.[00:19:00]
Um, there have been suggestions for like weapons and mass destruction that could use the physical called rods from the gods. We have like a giant telephone pole made of tungston that would come in at, at orbital velocity and make a big hole without using nuclear weapons. Um, but um, but yeah, so, you know, if, if like a little piece of a, of a spacecraft or something flood is done in someone's backyard, you might even be able to like, go out and catch it with a baseball mit, like it's, it's not going all that quickly.
[00:19:22] Mitchell Clark: we'll, we'll probably get into this at some point later, but the question that comes to my mind is, uh, uh, if something like that does occur, right, uh, uh, who, who foots the bill? Um, I think that might matter more when we, when, uh, uh, nuclear fallout or, or components from satellites that are using nuclear energy, um, come into the playing field.
[00:19:42] Casey Handmer: uh, that happened. No, that has happened. Yeah, it was a Russian, Russian nuclear power satellite, uh, re de orbited over Canada and created a big mess. Um, and then actually a bunch of Russian satellites, uh, , also de orbited, but at least that had the decency to come down in one piece. And just like I think a chunk, big chunk of plutonium to stand outta ended up [00:20:00] on the bottom of the ocean somewhere, which is about a safer place, as you can imagine for it.
It just kinda sinks into the mer and it's gone, uh, gone forever. But, um, it can happen. Yeah. So, uh, with, I, I
[00:20:11] Mitchell Clark: think that's a, that's an ideal segue, uh, uh, because then the question becomes, okay, so if all these, you know, wild things have happened and are happening, um, Just how crazy is this gonna get? Um, so open question.
Um, what are you the most excited to see coming up for the future of Lower THP in the next, let's say five years?
[00:20:37] Laura Cummings: I, I can go cause I'm real excited for this part of the space thing. But essentially, so the last like 10 years really been about commercializing launch so that now we can get a lot of stuff to space cheaper.
And so you can have a lot more people sending things into space, but okay, so now we've done that. It's cheaper to put things in. What do you do with [00:21:00] everything you've put in space? And so I think now the big question is essentially, yeah, what are you gonna do with it? Like, we're gonna start seeing commercial space stations, um, we're gonna start seeing more internet constellations, recycling, servicing, everything you could possibly imagine because now we can get it up there.
Um, and so that's really what I'm excited for is just to see kinda where ingenuity takes us.
[00:21:23] Casey Handmer: There's a Yeah to that. I would, I would also add, um, Starship promises, the ability to deliver stupendous quantities of stuff to orbit. So Laura mentioned earlier that we have this legacy about 6,000 tons of leftover debris floating around, um, up there.
And by floating around it's, it's moving way faster. The rifle bullet, like you have to be in the right place at the right time to even see it. Um, But, uh, Starship promises to launch a million tons a year. So that's like 6,000 tons in like the first four days of the year or something. It's, it's ridiculously a ridiculously big number.
Um, and most of that will be fuel and oxidizer, uh, that will be used to refill starships so that they [00:22:00] can launch again from lower orbit and then go to the moon or go to Mars or other places. Um, and I think it's just, it's incredibly transformative to have that capabil. Uh, for science, uh, mostly, but also for the ability to, to transport meaningful numbers of regular humans into space so they can live and work on the moon as we do in Antarctica.
Um, and yeah, that's, I mean, we're kind of on the cusp.
[00:22:19] Mitchell Clark: There's a professor here at UN L who's been looking for an excuse to be the first university with a. Journalism college with the satellite and space. And it sounds like that's going to be pretty realistic here in the not, so maybe imaging, right? Maybe they can send tweets,
[00:22:35] Casey Handmer: uh, via You can, you can buy a kit for a CubeSat and launch it for less than a million dollars now.
So, um, It's, it's not exactly pocket money, but it's, it's pretty cheap.
[00:22:44] Laura Cummings: Yeah. And if you have a bunch of law students, they can license it for you. That is true. , we .
[00:22:50] Morgan Armstrong: So you had mentioned, I mean both of you have mentioned new technologies that are coming out. Um, like one of them was the demises of satellites.
Um, [00:23:00] are there any other. New technologies that you haven't mentioned, uh, that are upcoming or with these new technologies, what are some of the challenges that those might present to Leo that
[00:23:13] Laura Cummings: aren't there now?
[00:23:19] Casey Handmer: I mean, we're gonna have to get really smart with traffic management, um, but. It's, it's fundamentally not that hard a problem. I mean, they say, Well, we could have 2000 or 20,000 or 200,000 satellites in lower orbit. It seems like a large number, but there are 200,000 cars in my neighborhood, like in my, in my city, and mostly they don't run into each other.
And yes, to be sure they're bigger and they go more slowly on average than than satellites do. But also their behavior is way less predictable. Like a satellite will always be pretty much close to where it's predicted to. We can track it all. It's extremely precisely. It also has GPS on board. Um, we just have to get like a little bit more sophisticated about it.
Um, . So yeah, [00:24:00] like the situation right now is that you, you kind of build a custom highway for every car to make sure they don't run into each other. And in the future we're gonna have to be a bit bit more clever about it, but it's, it's completely within the bounds of, of our current abilities. It doesn't, doesn't require any science fiction to, to make that work.
You could have, you could have, um, hundreds of billions of satellites in, in space before. Before you start to worry about them running into one another because they were unable to find adequate room.
[00:24:27] Laura Cummings: Yeah, and I would just echo that really, uh, kind of the traffic management is where we're gonna need to improve and you see, uh, people taking steps towards that.
Really, one of the underpinning technologies is just the ability to see what's in space. So anything we put 'em, now we can put essentially GPS tag on it, but for all the debris, all the junk, potentially the old stuff that's in space and that's small that doesn't already have that, we really need to improve our radar.
Um, Leo Labs is doing a great job of ground based radars. The 18 Space Squadron ad. The US has traditionally hosted a lot of that [00:25:00] information that they've been willing to share. Um, and we're also starting to see the rise of in space. Imaging. So space to space, trying to use that for space situational awareness.
Um, and really we just need to figure out a way that the world can get together and share that data so we can figure out where things are. Um, Noah specifically the Office of Space Commerce has started doing that with their open architect architecture data repository. They're taking over from the DOD for doing that open SSA sharing.
Um, Really? Yeah, just the, just the ability to know where things are and then we can kind of set up the, the flight management
[00:25:38] Mitchell Clark: system.
[00:25:40] Morgan Armstrong: At a high level, lower orbit is governed by national regulations that are guided by international treaty obligations. We'll be right back to discuss how regulation may change, how we can operate in space.[00:26:00]
[00:26:00] Laura Cummings: I'm Paige Ross, a student fellow at the Nebraska Governance and Technology. The student fellows at the center are drawn from across the University of Nebraska, including the colleges of law, business engineering, and journalism and mass communications. In the program, we develop research projects focused on the intersection of society and technology and working in multidisciplinary teams, think about how to communicate our work to the world.
Some of this year's subjects include designing autonomous vehicles with drivers in. Satellite congestion in low earth orbit and taking the politics out of online content moderation. We have some fun and network with fellow students and faculty too. The program is open to graduate or law students at the University of Nebraska and welcome students from all departments.
Now back to this episode of Tech Refactored. [00:27:00]
[00:27:02] Mitchell Clark: Now that, now let, let's change gears and kind of talk about how regulation has played a part in your respective experience of, um, I would call it the space industry, which I think also extends both to academia and policy. But, uh, the next is, that is space. Um, maybe the, the simplest question is, uh, based on your experiences, um, how do you perceive.
Regulation of low earth orbit, how have, how have you seen it be impactful?
[00:27:34] Casey Handmer: I mean, the out space treat amongst others, I think start, start with the best of intentions and, um, and in particular, responsive, um, regulation is super vital to ensure that, that, uh, we can kind of price risk and uncertainty in this, in this field.
However, um, it's. Kind of noticing that, that the major kind of difficult to price externalities are due to irresponsible behavior from nation state level actors in space. And in terms of the [00:28:00] nation states who have the ability to do stuff in space, uh, a good number of them have demonstrated that they will look the other way when it comes to regulations if they want to for any reason.
Screw you, No questions asked. Um, and we're kind of seeing that right now, um, with the lawlessness of, of Russia's invasion of. Um, and, and you know, so I think, I think in future, you know, we have to, we have to be aware that, um, our ability to enforce regulations, um, on activities in lower orbit, uh, strongly depends on particular, in particular the United States and its Alli's ability to be dominant, um, or at least a, a dominant player in that space.
Um, it's, it's practically I possible, I think, to, to do. So if you were not able to set the agenda if necessary by force
[00:28:45] Laura Cummings: and to just bring me. I wanna say an, an optimistic scope to that, but kind of adding a little bit to the picture. Um, so the outer space treaty, when it was set up in 1967, if you look at it, it's really a treaty of principles.
[00:29:00] So when I want regulations for my company, I want something to I can or cannot do. I'm looking for a pretty. Low level of granularity, like how, how fast can I go? Where can I fly that's not gonna be an outer space treaty. And so we're seeing these nations try to build in the regulations underneath the outer space treaty, whereas we already have the principles in space now.
Let's kinda work to see the specifics under that. And you get these efforts from you and copious where they develop. Guidance that can then be strengthened to guide international practice. So specifically, the long term sustainability guidelines, the UN COPIs release these 21 guidelines that essentially are responsible behavior and outer space.
States can voluntarily sign them and put them into practice. But because under the Outer Space Treaty, specifically Article one, all the nations that are [00:30:00] signatories have to act in outer space in accordance with international law. And so if you can figure out how to build international law specifically start going towards best practices or customary international law, even though the outer space treat principles, you start to fill in those regulations.
And I think we're going see that. Start to develop much more quickly, those kind of best practices, guidelines, that will then get codified as we see a lot more commercial companies enter this space and you have nations, especially the US that wants to protect their commercial companies investment in this realm.
And so they're feeding pressure into that international scenario to figure out how we build the, the background to these principles that we have. Um, so while there are. Bad actors that do things that we don't really have the ability to enforce right now. The hope is that we can kind of use different economic, legal, and peer pressure to get everybody to the [00:31:00] same baseline.
[00:31:01] Casey Handmer: Well, just to kind of underscore that, I would say like, Right now one of the major challenges is that potentially North Korea or China or Russia or anyone could go and shoot down a bunch of satellites, and that's actually one of the major concerns with kind of developing the ability to recycle and harvest, um, space junk that might belong to some other potentially defunct nation state.
Is that that's also. Actionable as anti-satellite technology. Um, that's a real challenge right now. But, but if we're able to develop technology that is able to kind of mitigate the effects of, of uncontrolled orbital debris, uh, as quickly as anyone can generate it, then that becomes a moot point. And we've, we've found a technological solution to a, a problem that was previously highly resistant to even international governance or, or legal strategies.
Um, just simply because, you know, like dumping toxic waste at sea. It's, it's an enforcement. Um,
[00:31:51] Morgan Armstrong: so, um, that's kind of an interesting question, uh, Casey that I just thought of based off of what you're saying. So [00:32:00] are you trying, like, would your solution be to advocate a technical solution rather than trying to work within the bounds of the regulation that's there?
Just based off of your background, cuz you mentioned like trying to come up with the solution to clean up the space debris because, People are using this technology. Um, it was just, it was an interesting point.
[00:32:25] Casey Handmer: Well, I think, I think what you generally find, uh, in all kinds of regulations and all kinds of international law, um, you know, particularly within the west, is that, um, is that you, you kind of have the, the regulation.
And the, the regulatory vision process moves kind of hand in glove with the development of technology and, and advocacy by, on, on behalf of the, uh, private organizations and government bodies that are developing this technology. And so it's not really a surprise to see that principle extend into space.
[00:32:56] Mitchell Clark: There's a, there's a great paper that, uh, a professor in the, the [00:33:00] law college here at un l published basically talking about how, I believe he calls it a permissive innovation ecosystem. Um, and how that kind of like regulatory outlook, if you will, um, was able to give rise to the early internet.
Kind of just by regulating as necessary and being adaptive and reactive. Um, people could try stuff. Um, but obviously given it's space, uh, there are some consequences if people break things.
[00:33:32] Casey Handmer: The internet is a great, a great, a great example because, um, even today we see that that regulators all over the world are struggling to keep up with the internet one way or another.
And we have to remember that even though it's 2022, we're still in the early days of the internet. We're still in the early days of space technology as well. Um, we don't, we don't have no idea what the final form of the internet look like. Probably our grandchildren won't even find out. Um, but as an example, you can look at.
The EU recent regulations, Navron has to click cookie, cookie related like commissions, right? So that, that, that was [00:34:00] regulations started with the best of intentions. Um, by the time it was finally enacted and enforced, it was completely irrelevant. Didn't solve any of the problems that sought to solve. It creates more friction and more problems.
And will it ever be appealed? Probably not. Um, it doesn't seem to be a process to. To kind of fix regulations that have felt in that way. Um, we kind of see that across the board with, with the internet, at least in the case of, of space. The, the kind of barriers to entry to really start causing mis space are way, way higher than they are on the internet.
Like one of the great things about the internet really is that essentially anyone with a access to a computer can put up a webpage or, or, you know, start doing stuff on it, which is, I think overall a great positive thing. Um, and in space, certainly the barriers are coming down. They're still significantly high.
Um, it's, you have to, it'd be much easier, for example, to, to go and salvage an old yacht and become a pirate, uh, on the, on the open seas, uh, than, than to start launching stuff into space and, and causing mis up there.
[00:34:48] Laura Cummings: So in terms of regulatory, uh, innovation, also something that we've seen just domestically to talk about is the Federal Aviation Administration.
So they're in charge of launch and reentry [00:35:00] licensing, and in 2020, they redid. Major part of the regulation. So this is 47 Code of Federal Regulations, CFR part four 50, streamlining of Launch and Reentry Licensing. And what the FA and what the FAA did when they went into this rule making is they really focused on making performance based versus prescriptive regulations.
And so where a prescriptive regulation would be, I want you to go. 10 feet at two feet per second with this specific propulsion system. You can make one that just says, I want you to go 10 feet. I don't really care how you do it. Just make sure that you're not violating this safety metric. And so now they've instituted a system where companies can come to them and show them how they can meet a, a safety metric or a specific requirement, but use their own method of proof and that ability to really govern, perform.
Rather than be prescriptive is one of the ways that you can allow technology to [00:36:00] flourish and a lot of this innovation to happen while still ensuring that you maintain a level of, of safety across the So did that
[00:36:07] Morgan Armstrong: is, that's more so is that something, um, you think is a way that regulation works Well because they sort of worked with the commercial industry to find out what their needs were to allow innovation to move forward, but to still.
Kind of keep, keep a lid on it in a way. Um, is that something that you would advocate regulation does going forward?
[00:36:34] Laura Cummings: Yeah, I would definitely say that a performance based goal is a net positive. Um, there are a couple downsides. For instance, in your kind of performance test, you can define it so narrowly that you almost reenter a prescriptive regime. Um, and so that can be something to watch for. But then also the FA did something interesting.
They said, Okay, when you bring us your methods to show us how you meet this requirement, um, if it's [00:37:00] innovative, and I believe if you give them permission, they will publish it. And so companies can have the option of kind of just. What the regulation says is what their baseline of how you can do this.
They can innovate or they can follow what another company has done and it met the same requirement and some of the first movers or the innovators have objected to that as a. Allowing those, those later entrance to really benefit from whatever innovation in the r and d and that investment that did. So you can see a little bit of tension there, but I believe overall, Enable industry to be innovative and work with their regulators because the regulators don't want to be prescriptive anymore than the industry really wants them to be.
Um, and so overall, I think having that flexibility and that device really helps everyone move forward together.
[00:37:56] Casey Handmer: Yeah, I think the FAA generally has a pretty good track [00:38:00] record when it comes to this kind of responsive, uh, regulation. Some might argue, um, particularly in the context of the 7 27 max certification that they went a little far.
Um, but it's certainly, it's a, um, you know, it's, it's, it's an essential thing that. If you're in the business of, say, building planes or something that, that you know, that you can go and knock on the door of your local field service district office in the faa and they will, they'll give you the time today and they'll sit you down and talk to you and, and be responsive to your, your needs and asks.
That's not always the case for other regulatory agencies and other jurisdictions as well. Um, which is kind of something that we will, yeah, space will continue to challenge with. Uh, we, sorry; we'll continue to be challenged by, um, a space development we will continue to be challenged by?
[00:38:39] Mitchell Clark: Yeah. That kind of, that kind of opens the, the, the room for, um, segway? Right. Perfect. Okay. So that kind of, that opens uh, uh, cuz two of the areas that we haven't really dug that deep into, for example, are, uh, the law, the governments say. Telecoms in space, right? We talked about how space based [00:39:00] internet, um, Casey's got a great blog post talking about how, you know, Starlink evolved as a, a solution, uh, that evolved out of a, a, a or a, a solution which was seeking a problem.
And that's how, that's how, that's how Starlink kind of was born initially. Um, but there's, there's also, uh, the whole aspect where we have these, these international forces that may wanna do what's beneficial for them. But how does that then play into the, the wider, um, international picture and so, um, down the road, right.
Ideally it would be nice that whoever is showing up in 10 to 20 years can come and make usage of a, a, a full ecosystem that is friendly, right? That people who want to come into the sector and innovate can still do so. Um, And most importantly, that, you know, we as a, a species don't kneecap ourselves on the way to the stars.
And so this, [00:40:00] what I, what I, what I think would be worth discussing is kind of how well does our current approach to regulation work, And then also how, how, what are the impacts if we, if we don't get this right, I think is a, a good way to phrase it. So, um, Just to ask a question, how does the current regulatory framework, you know, address some of the issues that we've discussed thus far?
[00:40:30] Laura Cummings: So I think, um, one example, and I can tie in both, both telecoms and kind world order here is actually the issue of market access. And so in the, if I land commercial on a US ground station in the US I have to go to the Federal Communications Commission, the fcc, and ask them for landing. Um, and for most satellites under part 25, if I want to ask the land spectrum in the US, [00:41:00] I have to do the majority of the showings that a normal US applicant would have to do.
And so one of the areas where we've been seeing this come to head is actually orbital degree mitigation showings. So in the FCC part 25, a normal applicant will have to give the FCC their orbital degree, orbital debris mitigation plan and say, This is how I'm gonna prevent debris. Here's all the things you've asked me for.
For a, a market access applicant, they either have to give them what they've asked for or showed that they are regulated to the same level that the US does. And so you see. And they're still kinda working out the, the kinks in that system. But essentially what you see is the US there has brought to bear just their, their market power of you need to land signal somewhere in the Northern hemisphere probably gonna be the US.
You're gonna have to comply with my regulatory domestic [00:42:00] policy. And so you can see that is one mechanism that specifically the, the larger or more, uh, desirable markets have brought to there to try to unify, um, what would be required of the satellite operators. Do you see that?
[00:42:18] Morgan Armstrong: Yeah. So is that a barrier to entry?
Is that sort of a difficult thing or is that, do you see that as a beneficial thing on something like orbital debris mitigation like the US is leading the way? Or do you see that as more of a barrier of entry?
[00:42:35] Laura Cummings: Uh, I think depending on what country you are coming from, it could be taken either way. Um, but for my own personal opinion, I really think that it a, the, some of the most technical stringent showings in terms of orbital to put a satellite on orbit and communicate wise and.
Because this is a field that so many people are paying attention to now [00:43:00] and really realizing this is a problem. There is a lot of stuff in lower Earth orbit, and if we don't take care of this environment, we're not going to be able to have these, these mega constellations we want. There's not gonna be safety for our astronauts, things like that.
And so if you can have. Somebody who's kind of, you know, driving the issue and has this sense of urgency rather than maybe an international that doesn't. Enforcement mechanism really does help mature and make sure everybody will better off is the long run.
[00:43:36] Casey Handmer: Yeah, I think it's important to remember that, um, just because SpaceX has succeeded in launching its first 2000 or so, styling satellites doesn't mean that every man and his dog is gonna go and launch 2000 satellites.
It's a really hard thing to do. So like the next best contender for like the thousand plus size constellation is Amazon Kiper, and they've just bought every launch that's available until their SCC license expires, uh, to get [00:44:00] half the constellation in. And even then, it's gonna be a really close run thing to see if they can do it.
And there's half dozen different things that could go wrong that would prevent them from doing it, um, that don't just relate to whether or not their, their launches will be ready. Um, and then of course, there's one web, but one web is, is, uh, actually less than a thousand satellites. As a result, they have to be at somewhat higher altitude.
So it'll be interesting to see how they deal with the, uh, auto orbital debris mitigation problem. But, um, long term, you know, the SpaceX just has an incredible. Advantage of all its competitors in this space, aside from the fact that it already has, you know, essentially warehouses full of some of the best engineers on Earth.
Um, it, it also has the best launcher by an auto latitude.
[00:44:41] Morgan Armstrong: So, This has been an awesome conversation. Um, so I think Mitchell and I would like to wrap it up by asking both of you, um, what do you see as, you know, the future of lower orbit and sort of the future of space, uh, with, with what we've talked about here today, and how do [00:45:00] regulations play a part?
What would you,
[00:45:01] Laura Cummings: what would you like to close?
[00:45:03] Casey Handmer: Well, I mean, the major challenge for, uh, regulations, um, for US space right now is actually in launch rather than in lower orbit. So I know that, uh, SpaceX has struggled to kind of obtain the permits and so on. It needs to, uh, fully accelerate the production, uh, and and qualification of its Starship launch vehicle.
And this is understandable because Starship is really huge and it's really hard to noisy or disruptive to launch a rocket from anywhere. Um, and you know, our legal system does train and train the rights. People and, and organizations and places and so on, that would be affected by this. But the, the flip side of that is that the default option is that you get to launch outta the Air Force base, which means you have to play by all the Air Force rules, some of which are a cane.
And you know, obviously not necessarily in the interests of the private organization. And this is a real risk because I think SpaceX has shown that it's possible to build something like Starship and our geopolitical adversaries will be copying that exact process and they will not be slowed down by those same processes.
They will not slow down by those same issues. Um, and so it may be that, that, you know, United States is in the process of throwing away a five year lead on this technology, [00:46:00] uh, which is a real worry.
[00:46:03] Laura Cummings: Yeah. And kinda build off, building off what Casey just mentioned about regulatory, slowing down innovation, and then also what I mentioned before is the reason I excited for space is we have things there, like let's do stuff with them now in space.
But one of the problems you see and specifically in the US is a lack of mission authorization. So under Article six of the Outer Space Treaty, any non-governmental activities in space still have to be, um, have to have authorization and continuing supervision of their sovereign nation. So I'm a commercial operator in the us.
The us, the United States is responsible for whatever I do in. What that means is when you go to your different licensing agencies at this point, so FAA for launch, Noah for imaging, FCC for Spectrum, you kind of, you kind of want someone to be like, Hey, yeah, this is an okay activity. You can do this. You need someone to sanction it.
Because [00:47:00] otherwise, if it's a novel technology, something they haven't seen before, those are gonna go from that licensing agency to their interagency review process. And someone there is gonna have a problem because it exposes the US to liability for whatever that commercial operating wants to do. And at this moment in time, we have no overarching structure.
Or entity that is in charge of making sure commercial operators can come with that innovative technology. Go to one government entity that is identified and be like, Please bless this mission. I want to do this. And that government entity can be like, Yeah, this is cool. I will give you permission to do this.
I will authorize and supervise this right now. You kind of get that through FCC Spectrum, but if you have something that isn't gonna use that or you don't want to go. Through the FCC for that permission because that's not really their wheelhouse. Um, there's no one that's identified to do that for you.
And so I really think that for the future, so we can do exciting things and not have regulations, slow down innovation, not [00:48:00] have policy makers look at something innovative and be like, I dunno what to do with this. Um, you really need someone to give you mission authorization. And so that's what I see is really the next.
I love that.
[00:48:11] Morgan Armstrong: Well, this has been awesome. We have loved having both of
[00:48:14] Casey Handmer: you. Thank you both
[00:48:17] Morgan Armstrong: and thank you for joining us today.
[00:41:19] Casey Handmer: It's been a pleasure
[00:48:20] Morgan Armstrong: on Tech Refactored.
[00:48:22] Laura Cummings: Yeah, thank you for having us. It has been great.
[00:48:27] Elsbeth Magilton: Thank you for joining our Student fellows on this episode of Tech Refactored. If you want to learn more about what we're doing here at NGTC or submit an idea for a future episode, you can go to our website at ngtc.unl.edu, or you can follow us on Twitter at UNL underscore NGTC.
If you enjoyed this show, don't forget to leave us a rating and review wherever you listen to podcasts. Our show was produced by myself, Elsbeth Magilton, and Lysandra Marquez, and Colin McCarthy created and recorded our theme music. This [00:49:00] podcast is part of the Menard Governance and Technology Programming Series.
Until next time, hang in there and keep learning.