Image Credits: NASA

Post by Claudiu Mihai Taiatu

NASA and SpaceX signed an agreement for flight safety coordination with NASA assets. This Agreement was signed by SpaceX on 7 January 2021 and was published by NASA on 18 March 2021. The NASA and SpaceX Flight Safety Coordination Agreement could be considered the first agreement containing traffic rules for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) between a commercial company and a national space agency on the safety of operations in outer space. According to provisions of Article 2 of the NASA and SpaceX Flight Safety Coordination Agreement, the purpose of such agreement is to define and enable the arrangement, responsibilities, and procedures for flight safety coordination, taking into consideration NASA assets and SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation. NASA “has agreed to not maneuver in the event of a potential conjunction to ensure the parties do not inadvertently maneuver into one another.” Thus, unless requested by SpaceX, NASA will maintain its planned trajectory and will allow SpaceX to maneuver to avoid conjunction with NASA assets. The importance of establishing clear communication channels between NASA and SpaceX related to Starlink was also highlighted within the provisions of Article 2, which can be read in conjunction with Article 19 that included the designated points of contact between the parties.

The lack of a definition of NASA assets is notable. However, provision Article 3(B)(2) provides that the procedures agreed between NASA and SpaceX will minimize the threat of collision between Starlink, the International Space Station (ISS), and Visiting Vehicles (VV) to the ISS. Resulting from the provisions of Article 5 of the NASA and SpaceX Flight Safety Coordination Agreement, each of the Parties to this Agreement will fund its own participation. This is a key provision which means that SpaceX will bear the cost of maneuvers for its Starlink satellites in avoiding collisions with NASA assets, the ISS, or visiting vehicles to the ISS. Provisions of Article 7 on the non-exclusivity of this Agreement, allow NASA or SpaceX to enter into similar agreements with other private or public entities. The possibility to further extend such practices to other actors means an opportunity to disseminate best practices and/or norms of behavior in outer space. Provisions of Article 8 on liability and risk of loss provide that the NASA and SpaceX Flight Safety Coordination Agreement “does not create or otherwise give rise to any claims outside of existing laws and regulations that govern safe satellite operations.” In accordance with this provision, the right of way rule agreed in the NASA and SpaceX Flight Safety Coordination Agreement will not create legal consequences in case of a collision.

Overall, the NASA and SpaceX agreement on spaceflight safety outlines the roles and responsibilities of NASA and SpaceX regarding information on orbital positions and maneuver plans.