Cover: Cross-Domain Lessons for Space Traffic Management

Cross-Domain Lessons for Space Traffic Management

An Analysis of Air and Maritime Treaty Governance Mechanisms

Published Jan 25, 2023

by Dan McCormick, Douglas C. Ligor, Bruce McClintock

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Research Questions

  1. How did nations successfully develop international traffic management systems in the air and maritime domains?
  2. What are the key governance processes, procedures, mechanisms, and institutions of a successful international traffic management system?
  3. Which elements of the air and maritime governance systems could serve as potential analogues for the development of an international STM system?

In this report, the authors examine the issue of space traffic management (STM) and the significant challenge that it poses to spacefaring nations, operators, stakeholders, and all who rely on critical space services and benefits. The ability to maneuver safely in space is at significant risk from increasing levels of space debris and increasing satellite congestion. These risks compound existing spectrum limits for satellite communications and decrease the number of orbits into which satellites and other objects can be placed. STM is essential to avoid interference and collision. Yet the international community lacks both an agreed-upon STM governance framework and a dedicated coordination mechanism to resolve these risks and limitations. In this report, the authors examine the treaty-based governance systems from both the air and maritime domains as potential models for space and offer key insights from each that may serve as building blocks for an international STM system.

Key Findings

  • The international community lacks agreed-upon STM governance processes, procedures, mechanisms, and institutions (collectively, a governance framework) and is without a dedicated coordination mechanism or organization that may be relied on to collect data, track objects, provide notifications, and assist in the resolution and/or adjudication of potential interference and collisions in space.
  • Successful traffic management and coordination in the air and maritime domains began with international treaties enabling the formation of key governance institutions: the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
  • ICAO and IMO provide six key governance framework benefits that would be necessary in a STM system: international representation by sovereign states, bottom-up development of practices and rules, substantive participation of nonstate private actors, decisionmaking through democratic processes, adjudication of conflict through mediation and arbitration, and compliance through the application of both soft and hard enforcement tools.
  • Elements of the ICAO and IMO governance frameworks may serve as analogues for the creation of an international STM organization.


  • Establish an agreed-upon definition of STM.
  • To gain international consensus, a STM organization should limit its initial jurisdiction, authority, and scope to rules and technical standards that would enable a robust collision notification and safe maneuver system.
  • Ensure that the organization represents a diverse set of states throughout its governance structure and adopt methods and mechanisms (similar to those used by both the ICAO and IMO) to incorporate private entity input into rulemaking.
  • Take the ICAO's and IMO's lead in crafting compliance procedures and mechanisms that avoid or mitigate noncompliance, burden-shifting impasses between actors, and conflict-generating behaviors and conduct.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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