UW News

October 29, 2020

UW Space Policy and Research Center brings researchers, policymakers together for online symposium Nov. 6

UW News

Even as residents of Earth grapple with a global pandemic, our work in space continues. At the University of Washington, the Space Policy and Research Center — SPARC for short — brings together researchers, policymakers and industry professionals each year to discuss the challenges of human presence and endeavors in space.

The SPARC 2020 symposium is free for those in the UW community to attend.
Register online.

The daylong 2020 SPARC Symposium will be held online on Nov. 6 and will feature introductory remarks by UW President Ana Mari Cauce and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell as well as Major Gen. John Shaw of the U.S. Space Command. The symposium’s many participants come from academia, government and the aerospace industry in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

The symposium’s theme will be Autonomous Operations in Space: Tech & Policy. In the concluding session, UW law professor Ryan Calo and physicist Tim Elam will talk with “The Martian” author Andy Weir and others in a panel on “Building our Future in Deep Space.”

The co-directors of SPARC are Kristi Morgansen, UW professor and chair of aeronautics and astronautics, and Saadia Pekkanen, professor of international studies. UW Notebook connected with Pekkanen over email with a few questions about this year’s symposium.

First, as a general overview, what is the mission of SPARC and its annual symposium?  

Saadia Pekkanen, co-director of SPARC

Saadia Pekkanen

Saadia Pekkanen: SPARC’s mission is to bring together science, technology, and policy in a way that speaks across many disciplines. We seek to advance collaborative research as well as the education, training and networks of the next generation of space professionals.

Space entrepreneurship will be a key topic, as in years past. How is the Pacific Northwest faring as a growing hub for the space industry?  

S.P.: One of the key trends we are now seeing is that more established and well-known companies are also in the space startup business, so to speak. Many of our large local players are now tailoring some part of their operations to get into the space business, particularly focused on the hardware and data from operational satellites.

Amazon, for example, says it will invest $10 billion in a satellite constellation. Known as Project Kuiper, it will launch over 3,200 satellites to provide broadband internet access worldwide. Microsoft has recently announced a partnership with SpaceX to go after the cloud computing business focused on commercial, government and military space customers.

UW law professor Bill Covington, director of the UW Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic, will moderate a panel on protecting Earth from orbital debris and near-Earth objects. We hear of low-Earth orbit being cluttered and of “near-misses” in the news. What is the current danger level from space debris?  

About SPARC:
The Space Research and Policy Center (SPARC) is organized by the William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics and the Jackson School of International Studies.

The center includes research and initiatives from the UW Astrobiology Program, the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, the Information School, UW Medicine, the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation and the School of Law as well as several departments, including astronomy, Earth and space sciences, mechanical engineering, materials science, human-centered design, electrical engineering, computer science, math, and environmental sciences.

ESS professor Kristi Morgansen is co dorector o SPARC

Kristi Morgansen

S.P.: I would say the levels for both accidental and deliberate threats are high. In both cases, the conditions enabling a runaway chain reaction of collision and more debris, called the Kessler syndrome, are concerning. There are about 2,700 known operational satellites in orbit, more than half of which belong to U.S. civilian, commercial and military stakeholders. If the number of small satellites surpasses the 100,000 mark as it is projected to the chances for accidental collisions increases.

Deliberate threats such as those posed by debris-creating anti-satellite (ASAT) tests carried out by many countries are even more concerning. All this comes at a time when the U.S has named both Russia and China as great power competitors, and these national rivalries have extended openly to outer space. We should be working on restoring diplomacy to strengthen norms and rules, which is the only way to deal with a problem at the nexus of technology and politics.

COVID remains a global challenge and menace. How has the coronavirus affected the space industry? Have projects or plans been delayed? 

S.P.: I think we will probably be assessing the impact with real data sometime next year. Right now, I imagine that most companies, especially smaller ones or new startups, are scrambling to adjust and float. Once again, the impact of the entry of the established companies may have a positive impact on the stability of supply chains and smaller startups as the competition moves forward.

What goals do you have for the Space Policy and Research Center in the next few years?

S.P.: We want to position as a premier university-centered think tank, which is seen as a trusted resource by audiences in government, business, education, media, and the nonprofit sector worldwide.

We also want to build out a truly interdisciplinary space studies curriculum for our students, speaking to technology, law and regional policies. We believe that such activities will bring together STEM, social sciences and humanities in the common enterprise of preserving peaceful prospects in outer space.