The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISDC 2024

Space Surveilliance Telescope
The Space Surveillance Telescope, developed by DARPA and formally transferred to the US Air Force last week, is one tool used to monitor objects in Earth orbit. Data from it and other sensors may be handed over to the FAA in the future so it can issue warnings of potential collisions that are currently the responsibility of the Air Force. (credit: DARPA)

New approaches for managing space traffic

Bookmark and Share

The closest thing there is to a “space traffic cop” in Earth orbit no longer wants the job.

For years, government and commercial satellite operators have relied on warnings from the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC (pronounced “jay-spock”), to provide warnings of potential collisions between satellites and other objects in orbit. The Air Force had the assets to track objects in orbit, and it was in their best interest to prevent collisions that could create more space debris and thus increase the risk to its own spacecraft.

“The Department of Defense needs to be focusing its time and resources on national security challenges in space: being space warriors, if you will, rather than space traffic cops,” Nield said.

In recent years, though, the Pentagon has suggested it no longer wants the responsibility for issuing warnings for all satellites. With growing concerns about threats to its own satellites, officials have indicated they would be willing to hand over monitoring of non-military satellites to another organization.

“Our nation’s senior military leadership has been very clear. They believe the Department of Defense needs to be focusing its time and resources on national security challenges in space: being space warriors, if you will, rather than space traffic cops,” said George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, in an October 12 speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Nield’s organization, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, has made it increasingly clear it would be willing to take on that role. In September, the FAA’s parent organization, the Department of Transportation, delivered to Congress a report that concluded that it would be feasible for the FAA to take on “safety-related space situational awareness” responsibilities, sometimes called space traffic management.

“We hope to start right away, working closely with our partners at the Department of Defense, to develop an implementation plan that would transition responsibility for collecting and disseminating safety-related space situational awareness data from the Air Force to the FAA,” he said.

The FAA, Nield said, would require three things in order to take on that space traffic management job. One would be explicit authority, likely though legislation, to perform work previously handled by JSpOC. A second would be “necessary resources,” in the form of personnel and funding, to do the work. The last issue would be immunity from lawsuits that might stem from that work, which the Pentagon has today.

While all three of those prerequisites are still pending, planning is already underway for what such a transition of space traffic management responsibility to the FAA might look like. An “industry day” Tuesday morning in Washington, organized by the FAA and two industry organizations, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and Satellite Industry Association, will bring together FAA, Defense Department, and other officials to talk about how a potential transition might take place.

Nield, in his ISPCS talk and subsequent speeches, has sketched out his vision of how it might work. “We want to accomplish that transition as soon as possible, but to do that in a ‘crawl, walk, run’ manner so that all of the key stakeholders are comfortable with the approaches being used, the progress being made, and the products and services that are provided,” he said.

“Everyone recognizes it’s something that’s needed,” said the FAA’s Earle. “We’re at that tipping point to kick it off, but we’re just trying to push it through the finish line.”

That transition would start with a pilot program running for six to nine months, with the FAA analyzing tracking data and issuing warnings in parallel with the JSpOC’s existing system. After that, Nield said he envisions JSpOC handing over responsibility in phases to the FAA, perhaps starting with constellations of small satellites. Once the FAA system reached full operational capability, he said, “the DOD could begin phasing out its non-national-security information sharing and focus exclusively on military missions in space.”

Another speaker at ISPCS, US Army Maj. Gen. Heidi Brown, the director of global operations for US Strategic Command, said she endorsed the “crawl, walk, run” concept for a gradual transition of space traffic management responsibility to the FAA. “DOD is not against this at all,” she said during a panel discussion at the conference. “A partnership in this endeavor is certainly the way to go.”

That view has filtered down from leadership to those involved with the actual work, for the most part. At an October 17 panel session about space traffic management during a space law conference in Washington organized by the University of Nebraska College of Law, Steph Earle, space traffic and Air Force interface lead for FAA/AST, said he didn’t see any evidence of resistance within the Defense Department to transitioning space traffic management responsibilities for non-military satellites to the FAA.

He did acknowledge, though, a “reticence” among some in the military to that potential transfer. “Everyone recognizes it’s something that’s needed,” he said. “We’re at that tipping point to kick it off, but we’re just trying to push it through the finish line.”

Part of that reticence, another panelist at the University of Nebraska conference said, might stem from concerns that transferring responsibilities might actually increase the Air Force’s workload, not decrease it.

“If there are people who have reluctance to step forward to support a new function or an augmented function in the FAA, it might be people who are working to protect the resources they currently have in an oversubscribed scenario,” said Don Greiman, vice president for the space situational awareness business unit at Schafer Corporation. “They’re trying to make sure that, as the FAA steps up to do safety of spaceflight, they aren’t asked for a portion of their resources that are now detracting from the national intelligence missions that they are so concerned about executing.”

Indeed, while the Air Force would hand over the responsibilities to the FAA for issuing warnings for non-military satellites, it would retain that role for military spacecraft, and continue to operate the various tracking facilities used to monitor objects in orbit. “We want to make sure we maintain our ability to defend and attribute bad actors in space, because that’s critical for our nation’s defense, as well as for our allies,” Brown said at ISPCS.

However, giving FAA responsibility for non-military satellites would mean more than simply analyzing the same data collected by the Air Force in the same way. Nield suggested he would be open to augmenting that data with other sources, such as companies developing commercial space situational awareness systems, and analyzing it in new ways.

Nield said that the FAA has done “internal benchmarking” to determine the number of people and resources needed to carry out that role. “Based on the many years of learning and operations that the military has successfully accomplished, and by taking advantage of the advanced technologies and new capabilities that are out there today in the private sector,” he said, “I think we can start with a clean sheet that does not require a huge amount of resources to accomplish.”

That effort is ongoing even outside the discussions of a transition of space traffic management responsibilities to the FAA. “There has been a lot of recent traction and initiative to bring commercial data in particular into government resources,” Greiman said, adding that was one reason Schafer established a business unit devoted to space situational awareness. “I think the commercial data that is available today would be surprising to many” in terms of what it can track.

There’s also room for improvement in how that data is used to track objects and make calculations about potential collisions. At ISPCS, Moriba Jah, director of the space object behavioral sciences program at the University of Arizona, cited as an example data from the Space Surveillance Telescope, an optical telescope developed by DARPA to track objects in Earth orbit and formally handed over to the Air Force last week.

“The good thing about the Space Surveillance Telescope is that it detects lots of stuff. The bad news about the Space Surveillance Telescope is that it detects lots of stuff,” he said. That is, the telescope detects many items that can’t be identified as specific objects. “We detect lots of stuff that we can’t track. Detecting stuff and tracking things are not necessarily the same thing.”

“We detect lots of stuff that we can’t track. Detecting stuff and tracking things are not necessarily the same thing,” said Jah.

There’s also opportunities to better calculate the orbits of objects that are tracked to predict potential collisions, he said. One example is how satellites are modeled in those computer systems, which Jah argues treats them too simplistically. “Everything’s a cannonball in space,” he said. “If we want to start moving towards really being able to manage this idea of space traffic and orbital safety, we need to start progressing the science and the knowledge such that we can start modeling things to look more like they actually do, versus just the cannonball model.”

But as the federal government gradually moved towards a transition of space traffic management responsibilities to the FAA, there’s another issue: the use of the term “space traffic management.” Some worry that the term, which has been gaining acceptance in the last few years, might misstate what’s involved in tracking objects and warning of potential collisions.

“I’m not really sure what space traffic management really is,” said Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University, speaking on a panel about space traffic management at the Fifth Annual Space and Satellite Regulatory Colloquium in Washington last Thursday.

“The word ‘traffic’ may actually be a misnomer relative to what we have in space,” agreed another panelist, David Barnhart, a former DARPA project manager who is now CEO of satellite technology company Arkisys. He argued for something like a maritime model, with orbits analogous to shipping lanes.

Part of the problem may be that people may think of space traffic management as analogous to air traffic management, particularly if the FAA does get responsibilities for space situational awareness work. “People often default to an aviation model that says we’re going to tell some satellite operator to bank 30 degrees. Obviously, that’s not how it works,” said the FAA’s Earle at the University of Nebraska event. “Full space traffic management like that is a far, far cry from where we are today.”

Earle said that, eventually, he foresees more real management and regulation of spacecraft in orbit. “But it’s pretty far” in the future, he said.

For now, the FAA and others in government and industry are focused on moving the responsibility for collision warnings out of the increasingly overworked Air Force and, most likely, to the FAA, once everyone agrees on how that should work and what resources will be required. And that is only slowly moving forward.

“The good news is that there’s never been a time when there was a greater understanding and more appreciation of the congested nature of space,” Nield said at ISPCS. “The bad news is that even though we have been debating some of these issues for a number of years—certainly since before the publication of the National Space Policy in June of 2010—we haven’t had a lot of final decisions made and haven’t seen a lot of definitive actions taken.”