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USCG approved for pilot programme for autonomous vessel sea recovery of space launch equipment

The US Coast Guard is studying the use of unmanned vessels to recover space capsules and other materials in the sea. (SpaceX)

The US Coast Guard (USCG) has received approval to look at using autonomous vessels for the recovery of materials to help prepare for the rising tide of space launch capsules, equipment, and debris landing in the ocean in the coming years.

Congress authorised a pilot programme in December 2022 for the USCG, which may last for up to five years, the US National Academies noted in its report, The Coast Guard's Next Decade: An Assessment of Emerging Challenges and Statutory Needs , released in June.

Under this programme, Congress has authorised the USCG to grant waivers from certain existing statutory requirements, including navigation and manning laws, when needed to “allow remote and autonomous vessel at-sea operations and activities to occur while ensuring navigation safety” and to “ensure the reliable, safe, and secure operation of remotely controlled or autonomous vessels”, the National Academies reported.

“Even under this program, however, vessels must still be supervised ‘at all times' by at least one licensed human operator,” the National Academies reported.

The USCG will be under the gun to improve space debris recovery operations.

Commercial space launches in particular are increasing dramatically. According to a February 2023 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report to Congress, there were 14 licensed launches or landings (launches make up the vast majority) in 2015 and 17 in 2016; in 2021 there were 64, and 74 in 2022. The regulatory agency predicts up to 186 such events by 2026.

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