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ViviSat illustration
The concept of “mission authorization” under consideration by the federal government could clear the way for new space activities, like satellite servicing. (credit: ViviSat)

Filling in the details


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Two events on Tuesday have the potential to provide clues for the future of space policy. In Washington, the Obama Administration will release its fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, the final one by this president. Meanwhile, several hundred kilometers to the northeast, voters will be going to the polls in New Hampshire in Democratic and Republican party primaries, a key early milestone in the race to determine who takes office next January.

“The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act… asks for 12 different reports to be prepared and delivered to Congress over the next 12 months,” Nield said.

That potential, though, may not be easily realized. The budget proposal is unlikely to contain many new initiatives, particularly for civil or military space; even if it does, Republican leadership in the House and Senate have already declared the budget proposal from the Democratic administration dead on arrival. And candidates in the race to succeed President Obama have said little to date about space policy or even science policy in general. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which had planned a three-hour session at its annual conference in Washington later this week to discuss the candidates’ science policies with campaign representatives, quietly dropped the panel from the schedule recently.

That doesn’t mean, though, that 2016 will be entirely quiet in space policy. NASA will continue to carry out its various programs, which will likely include more sparring with Congress over funding and prioritization of efforts like the Space Launch System and Orion, as a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee last week suggested.

There’s also the implementation of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, the commercial space bill signed into law last November (see “Wrapping up a commercial space bill”, The Space Review, November 16, 2015). That bill had earned attention in large part to provisions—controversial ones, in some quarters—it contains granting companies rights to resources they extract from the Moon, asteroids, and other celestial bodies. The bill, though, also makes a number of changes to commercial space transportation law, extending some key elements and clarifying others.

The bill also provided the administration with some homework assignments, in the form of a series of reports to study or implement the bill’s provisions. Many of those reports are the responsibility of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), responsible for licensing commercial launches and reentries.

“The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which was signed by the president on November 25, asks for 12 different reports to be prepared and delivered to Congress over the next 12 months,” George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said in opening remarks last Tuesday at the FAA’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington.

Six of those reports, he said, were assigned to his relatively small office. The act assigns the remaining six to other agencies, from NASA to the GAO. “But the topics they cover will certainly impact our office and the work that we do,” he said.

“The DOD is not the right place for that,” Bridenstine said of space traffic management. “There are other agencies that ought to have that authority. I believe… that the FAA ought to be that agency.”

One particular area of interest is the area of space traffic management. Today, the Air Force handles, through its Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), the responsibility of not only tracking satellites and debris in Earth orbit, but also issuing warnings of “conjunctions,” or potential collisions of satellites with debris or with each other, giving operators notice to make maneuvers or take other steps to prevent collisions.

In recent years, the Air Force has suggested it would like to hand off part of that conjunction analysis work, particularly for civil and commercial satellites, to another agency, reducing its burden. One report required by the bill, due by November, will review space traffic management capabilities and make recommendations “related to the appropriate framework for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public and economic vitality of the space industry.”

FAA/AST officials have expressed an interest for some time in taking over that space traffic management role. “Both the FAA and DOD are in agreement that this would be a relatively straightforward operation, and we would propose to get started on transitioning that responsibility as soon as we are given permission to do so,” Nield said.

“Assuming,” he immediately added, “that we were also given the resources that would be required, which we think would be relatively modest.”

At least one member of Congress supports such a transfer of authority. “There’s a threat out there that the DOD absolutely needs to be paying attention to,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the House Armed Services and Science Committees, in a speech later the same day at the conference. That threat, he said, was from Chinese and Russian spacecraft that he believes are testing anti-satellite capabilities.

To focus on that threat, he argued, the Defense Department needed to hand over its more routine space traffic management activities. “The DOD is not the right place for that,” he said. “There are other agencies that ought to have that authority. I believe—and I’ve written an op-ed about it—that the FAA ought to be that agency.”

At the same time, there are commercial efforts, like AGI’s Commercial Space Operations Center, or ComSpOC, which are offering space traffic management services for a fee. Relieving the Air Force of any space traffic management responsibility for commercial satellites could foster their development by encouraging commercial satellite operators to be more proactive in managing their spacecraft.

“We have to get the JSpOC to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to be doing this any more for you commercial guys,’” said Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, in a conference panel Wednesday. “If we keep saying it’s going to be provided by the Air Force for free, we’re not going to get people to take responsibility.”

Despite that support for transferring space traffic management authority, others suggest Congress will wait until after the report is done to take action. “I think we’re trying to stay open-minded,” said Nick Cummings, staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, during a conference panel.

Cummings, who, like other staff members on the panel said he was speaking only for himself, said that he believed members were looking for “innovative, novel solutions that really fully appreciate the complexities and uniqueness of what’s going on in orbit around Earth.”

Another topic that’s the subject of a report is the concept of on-orbit authority. While FAA/AST licenses launches and reentries, it does not oversee other aspects of commercial missions after launch and before reentry. In some cases, like communications and remote sensing, agencies like the FCC and NOAA have oversight.

However, as companies propose new activities in space, like satellite servicing or resource extraction, it’s not clear how they would be regulated, or how the US would thus uphold its requirement under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” for activities of its non-governmental organizations in space.

““We view the mission authorization proposal that would allow companies to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” Roberts said.

Some officials have proposed the concept of a “mission authorization,” where government agencies would review proposed commercial activities and ensure they are in compliance with treaties and laws. At the conference, Ben Roberts, assistant director for civil and commercial space at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the administration was completing a draft proposal for such a mission authorization.

“It’s pretty similar in process and structure to the existing FAA payload review process that goes into a launch license,” he said. Companies would provide a description of their proposed activity to the FAA, which would then circulate it among other relevant agencies to ensure it complies with international obligations, is consistent with national security, and does not jeopardize US government assets in space.

“The assumption going in is that these authorizations would be approved absent some kind of problem along those lines,” he said. Those approvals could include conditions, though, such as prohibiting a satellite-servicing mission from approaching some spacecraft. “We wanted to create something that was a very light touch, but would give companies the signoff they needed to get through the launch licensing process and would help with their investors.”

That raised concerns, though, of creating additional regulatory burdens for companies. “I worry about a mission authorization agency review as being something very burdensome for a company like mine,” said Sears. “How do I know that any of those agencies have my commercial best interests in mind?”

Roberts said the mission authorization was not intended for communications and remote sensing satellites, which are already licensed. “We view the mission authorization proposal that would allow companies to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” he said. Companies already licensed by FCC and NOAA, like Intelsat, “wouldn’t need an additional license of any kind. This is mostly just covering people who don’t fit those existing categories.”

Those and other reports required by last year’s bill could serve as the basis for additional legislation, either standalone or as part of other bills. However, even if the reports are submitted on time—which is often not the case—Congress may simply not have the time to take up those issues this year.

“There’s a lot to chew on, and frankly not a lot of time,” said Tom Hammond, staff director of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. A shorter legislative calendar this year because of the elections, plus other priorities, will make it difficult to take up any additional commercial space legislation this year regardless of the timing and contents of those reports. “There’s a lot that we’re going to have to get done in that little amount of time.”

Staffers said that, for now, they’ll wait on receiving the reports required by the bill then study them before members make any decisions on future legislation, either this year or later. “There are several reporting requirements in the 2015 act that point towards future action,” said Bailey Edwards, policy director for aviation, science, and space on the Senate Commerce Committee. “We’ll know more when we see those reports.”


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