Four years ago, I wrote an in-depth report called “Going Blind” on how the United States was in danger of losing its ability to “see” in space, a capability known as space situational awareness (SSA). “Going blind” would have detrimental effects on the entire world’s ability to use space in a safe, secure, and sustainable manner. While there have been some efforts since to improve the situation, the situation is still dire. The core issues have not been addressed, and the challenges are only increasing.
The time has come for the U.S. military to let go of the spaceflight safety mission, and allow a civil entity — likely with help from the private sector, academia, and international partners — to create its own public, high-accuracy catalog of space objects, and provide safety of spaceflight services to satellite operators. At the same time, the U.S. military should refocus its own efforts on developing SSA capabilities that are critical to protecting U.S national security space capabilities from potential threats.
Currently, there are more than 1,400 active satellites in Earth orbit, and satellite operators are already performing more than 120 maneuvers each year to minimize the risk of a collision with other satellites or one of the tens of thousands of pieces of space debris. There are at least 3,600 new satellites, and possibly thousands more, planned for launch in the next decade. Many of these new satellites are cubesats or large constellations of hundreds to thousands of small satellites, which will vastly increase the complexity and workload to keep on-orbit activities safe and prevent disasters.
Following the 2009 collision between the Iridium 33 and Cosmos 2251 satellites, the U.S. military was tasked to be the main provider of SSA data and close approach warnings for the entire world. The analysts doing the mission are working hard to make the most out of their technological and resource constraints, and senior leaders including Gen. John Hyten, Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond, and Doug Loverro have been working hard to bring necessary changes to U.S. military capabilities, procedures, and policies.
But despite these efforts, the U.S. military is running up against the limitations of a military entity providing an international, safety-orientated mission. Civil SSA is a task that by its very nature requires melding a large amount of diverse data from governmental, commercial, and international sources, developing transparent processes and algorithms, and having an agile software platform to continuously incorporate new analytical technologies and expand capacity to meet growing demand.
The limitations of the current approach are felt the most in two areas: upgrading the legacy computer systems used by the U.S. military to create and provide SSA data, and SSA data sharing policy. After more than a decade of efforts and $500 million spent, the latest acquisitions program to try and accomplish the former, the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System (JMS), has been delayed again until at least 2018. And the SSA sharing strategy unveiled by U.S. Strategic Command in 2014 has led to removal of more SSA data from public access, including data on the estimated size of space debris objects in the public satellite catalog, and limitations on what data is provided privately to satellite operators, due to national security concerns.
There are two options to change the current structure and address these limitations. The first option is for the U.S. military to more fully embrace the task of being the world’s provider of SSA data and services for safety of spaceflight. The GPS is a good, if imperfect, model of how the U.S. military can provide services for both defense and civil applications. Five policy decisions were key to the GPS success story: establishing a performance standard for the civil GPS service so end users know what they can rely on; publishing an Interface Control Document (ICD) that specifies exactly how commercial companies can design receivers to make use of the civil signal; giving civil entities a voice in managing GPS; eliminating the artificial error originally added to the civil signal; and negotiating an interoperable civil signal across all the international satellite navigation systems. These policy decisions led to an explosion in civil, commercial, and scientific innovation in GPS receivers and applications, and have yielded tens of billions of dollars in economic value to the United States and benefits for the entire world.
Taking the same approach to SSA — establishing a performance standard for a civil SSA service, dropping artificial limits on the accuracy of data in the public satellite catalog, creating an ICD for machine-to-machine interaction with SSA data and services, and interoperability between international SSA capabilities — would go a long ways to improving the safety and efficiency of space activities. But that outcome is only possible if JMS successfully delivers on all its promises, and major changes are made to SSA data sharing policy. The evidence suggests that neither is likely to happen.
That leads to the second option: for the U.S. military to let go of the part of the SSA mission necessary for safety of spaceflight. Letting go means allowing someone else to develop a public, high-accuracy catalog of space objects based on data from non-military sources, which can be used to provide close approach warnings to satellite operators and other safety services. Letting go of these tasks would enable the U.S. military to focus on the national security aspects of SSA, including enhancing the public catalog with data from exquisite military and intelligence sources, and detecting, characterizing, and defending against potential hostile threats to its satellites.
What makes the second option practical now is the huge leap in private sector SSA capabilities over the last few years. The Space Data Association (SDA) provides participating operators with enhanced close-approach warning and radio-frequency interference resolution services. Several companies, including ExoAnalytics, Rincon, Lockheed Martin, and LeoLabs, are already selling SSA data from privately owned sensors. Other companies such as Analytical Graphics Inc., Boeing, Schafer Corp., and Applied Defense Solutions are using commercial SSA data to create and sell SSA services to governments and satellite operators.
And there’s the potential for much more to come. Multiple companies that are currently operating, or plan to operate, new constellations of remote sensing satellites have expressed interest in using the time when their satellites are unable to image the Earth to collect SSA data on space objects. Other companies such as Chandah Space Technologies and OrbitalATK have plans to provide on-orbit satellite inspection and radio-frequency mapping services that could truly revolutionize SSA.
Yet the private sector, while an important part of the solution, won’t be able to solve this challenge on its own. There will still be a need for a civil agency to ensure that space is being used in a safe and efficient manner, and that the United States continues to meet its obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty for providing authorization and continuing supervision of its private sector space activities. Currently, no U.S. federal agency has clear authority over on-orbit activities, which limits the ability of the U.S. government to provide the regulatory certainty that innovative commercial activities need to reassure investors, and ensure that operators of large constellations and cubesats behave in a responsible and safe manner. Giving a civil agency new authorities to perform these tasks, while leveraging commercial SSA data and software, could yield great benefits for relatively little taxpayer expense.
But implementing either of these choices hinges on resolving one, crucial sticking point — national security. Many of the current policy restrictions on SSA data stem from the desire to try to hide national security satellites and activities on orbit, despite the fact that many of these satellites are already well-known and tracked regularly by amateur hobbyists — to say nothing of potential adversaries. And the same national security concerns discourage, if not outright prohibit, many of the new and innovative SSA services being developed by the private sector, out of concern they might “see” something sensitive in orbit.
The U.S. military, and other governments, still needs to keep some secrets in space. But instead of trying to accomplish this by denying the existence of large, broadcasting space objects — a quixotic task in an increasingly transparent space environment — we need to find an alternative solution, as has been done for the air and sea domains. We don’t try and hide the existence of aircraft carriers and cruisers, but we do protect details of their capabilities and tactical operations. And we do allow civil authorities to collect data on air traffic to manage safety and efficiency, while the military aircraft conduct operations with due regard and conceal their own presence when they must.
Letting go of the safety of spaceflight SSA mission would be a win-win move for everyone. The U.S. military would get to protect details on its SSA capabilities, and offload an increasingly demanding mission to free up its operators and resources to focus on national security threats. Civil federal agencies would be able to more effectively supervise and authorize commercial space activities, which in turn will help ensure the commercial space boom lives up to its promise and enable greater international cooperation. All of those benefits would reinforce America’s role as a global leader in establishing norms of responsible behavior, and help boost humanity’s future in space.
Brian Weeden is the technical adviser for Secure World Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the long-term sustainable use of space for benefits on Earth, and a former U.S. Air Force officer. He is on the Board of Advisors for Chandah Space Technologies.