Hanging Together, or Hanging Separately

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, the best time to build a roof, or repair one, is when the sun is shining.

That’s why the refusal of many satellite fleet operators to join the Space Data Association (SDA) is somewhere between perplexing and inexcusable.

SDA was created in 2009 and became operational in 2012. It is located in the most inoffensive of places, the Isle of Man.

Its four executive members are fleet operators SES, Intelsat, Inmarsat and Eutelsat.

As historical growth markets now mature, these four companies are more competitive today than ever. Nonetheless, they have found a way to protect their proprietary data while pooling information on satellite maneuvers and frequency use so that, over time, the risk of RF interference, intentional or otherwise, is reduced, as is the risk of in-orbit collision.

Analytical Graphics was hired to operate the SDA’s Space Data Center, an automated space situational awareness system.

With the passage of time, once-suspicious fleet operators have joined SDA’s ranks, paying modest dues that fund the nonprofit organization’s operations.

Membership is now 27, with four new organizations — Telenor of Norway, Turksat of Turkey, low-orbit-constellation operator Orbcomm of the United States and the German Aerospace Center, DLR — joining in 2015.

SDA members operate 272 satellites in geostationary orbit, about 70 percent of active spacecraft there; and 182 low- or medium-Earth-orbit satellites. Collision avoidance in low Earth orbit is a much bigger problem than the relatively serene environment in geostationary orbit, which is why the addition of LEO operators is such good news.

Orbcomm is just the latest LEO operator to join SDA. Iridium is a member, as are the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization; Planet Labs; Google’s Skybox Imaging, renamed Terra Bella; Airbus Defence and Space; and DigitalGlobe.

The most recent addition, DLR, should lead the European Space Agency and the French space agency, CNES, to join as well.

Increased membership means the SDA can do more things, such as further automating its radiofrequency exchanges to improve interference management.

There’s no legal requirement for anyone to join. Some operators may still suspect that membership will force them to disclose information they’d rather keep to themselves. Or they may think the two-line elements published by the U.S. Air Force, a global freebie, is enough for them.

Credit: SDA

Credit: SDA

For multiple reasons, the global space industry, government and private, cannot afford to leave surveillance of the orbital highways to the U.S. Department of Defense. And even DoD, via the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), provides data to SDA. Lower-precision data from JSpOC is provided to SDA regularly, and higherprecision data is available to operators with agreements with JSpOC.

If some of the most competitive operators can pool their data, what precisely is stopping the others?

Naming and shaming has a value, so here’s a list of just some major fleet owners whose absence from the SDA is an embarrassment:

ABS, APT, AsiaSat, ChinaSat, DirecTV, Globalstar, Gazprom Space Systems, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Russian Satellite Communications Co. and Sky Perfect JSat.

Despite the occasional zombie satellite in geostationary orbit, the weather is still pretty good there. LEO is more overcast but is still considered safe enough that insurance is available at reasonable rates. New LEO constellations are being designed by the private sector for telecommunications, Earth observation and weather forecasting.

Every one of these new entrants should join SDA as soon as their first few satellites are in orbit (OK, Spire Global?) There’s no sense in waiting for heavy weather.