FAA pins price on taking on space-traffic job

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration estimates it can take over the job of providing collision warnings for most satellites from the Air Force for “well under” $100 million if it receives authority to do so.

At a recent industry day organized by the FAA and two industry groups, a proposal to eventually transfer the responsibility for providing collision warnings for non-military satellites to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) received widespread support, including from key officials in the FAA and Defense Department.

The FAA is still researching how to take on that responsibility, and one of the purposes of the industry day was to solicit feedback from companies and organizations about how to do so. An ongoing study by the Science and Technology Policy Institute, is looking at a wide range of approaches for the FAA with differing degrees of reliance on Air Force tracking data and other resources.

While the FAA has yet to pick a particular approach, it does have a general cost in mind. “We think we can establish the system for well under — a lot under — $100 million,” said Jeff DeTroye, a senior project manager for space traffic management and space situational awareness at FAA/AST.

DeTroye and other FAA officials at the meeting said they estimated that, once their system was up and running, it would cost “on the order” of $20 million a year to operate. While they considered that a modest cost, it would still be more than AST’s entire current budget, which for 2016 was $17.8 million.

George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, emphasized that any move of space situational awareness responsibilities to his office is contingent on several factors. They include obtaining the resources needed to carry out the job; authorization to do so, most likely through legislation; and indemnification against lawsuits regarding providing collision warnings, similar to what the Defense Department has today.

Nield, as he as done in other recent speeches, called for a phased transition starting with a six- to nine-month pilot program where an FAA system would run in parallel with the Air Force’s existing system. The full transition, where the FAA would take over providing collision warnings for all non-military satellites before the Air Force phased out that work, could take about five years, DeTroye estimated.

While the FAA has long made clear it’s willing to take on space situational awareness work, a top Pentagon official at the event also endorsed that shift in responsibility. Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said he supported that shift only in part because it would free up resources for military needs.

A bigger reason, he said, was that he felt the Defense Department was not the best agency to lead space situational awareness efforts. “It’s not the proper role of the DoD. It’s the proper role of a civil agency,” he said. A civil agency like the FAA would have the authority to regulate, which the Defense Department lacks, he said. In addition, he said a civil agency would be better able to coordinate with other nations.

Loverro added that he felt the FAA was the best civil agency to take on that role. “There has been a discussion within the administration of what’s the appropriate agency to lead this,” he said. “I believe that’s the logical place to put this.”

Nield, in his remarks, said that other agencies were considered besides the FAA to take on space situational awareness work, including NASA, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. None, though, were interested in the job when asked about it by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

“Just to make sure we had a consensus, during one of the many interagency policy committee meetings that addressed this issue over the last couple of years, OSTP specifically asked the FCC, NOAA and NASA, one by one, whether they were interested in taking over the responsibility for civil space situational awareness,” Nield recalled. “All respectfully declined.”

Loverro said he was willing to hand over that responsibility even if that means losing some degree of secrecy. Since the Air Force currently handles space situational awareness work, it is able to screen classified spacecraft out of public catalogs. However, a civil agency could use data from commercial or international sources that would include those spacecraft.

“There are objects in space that we would rather not have tracked,” he said. “The days where we could actually keep the location of objects in space secret are gone. We can still keep the function of those objects secret, but the fact that everybody can sense them means we can’t keep the location secret, and we don’t need to.”