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orbital debris
Space traffic management is an increasingly important issue which requires tapping into expertise outside of government to solve. (credit: ESA)

How defense and civil space offices can work together to on space situational awareness and space commerce

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Long-standing technological and cost barriers to space are falling, enabling more countries and commercial firms to participate in satellite manufacturing, launch, space exploration, and human spaceflight. Although these advancements are creating new opportunities, new risks for space-enabled services are emerging. In particular, the number of satellites and debris in orbit is growing, making tracking satellites, discriminating threats from non-threats, and predicting and preventing collisions a daunting challenge. Consequently, state and commercial space actors increasingly depend on information about the space domain to avoid such risks. Therefore, accurate space-based information has become crucial for military, commercial, and civil operations.

Placing such an SSA responsibility into DoC encounters a practical obstacle: a lack of staff and budget.

The objective of this article is to recommend to the National Space Council how the Department of Commerce (DoC), in coordination with other executive space offices, can best engage the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish and utilize an Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR) to enhance space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM), resulting in safer space operations for civil and commercial entities worldwide, thus also enhancing United States space leadership.

Barriers to DoC taking responsibility for space situational awareness

The National Space Council’s Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) directly calls for DoC to be “responsible for the publicly releasable portion of the DoD [Space Object] Catalog”[1] and for “establishing” and “administering an Open Architecture Data Repository”[2] (emphasis mine). Related to this direction is the fact that much of the SSA[3] effort by DoD and connected NASA contractors is devoted to giving conjunction warnings to private companies. DoD reportedly would prefer to concentrate on militarily relevant SSA and offload the responsibility for the “publicly releasable” part to a trusted federal partner.[4]

However, placing such an SSA responsibility into DoC encounters a practical obstacle: Currently DoC’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC) has only three fulltime-equivalent employees and an annual budget of around $800,000, although the office’s director, Kevin O’Connell, reports that he can leverage up to 25 to 30 people from throughout DoC as part-timers.[5] Compare this to FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which has around 100 employees and a fiscal year 2018 budget of $22.5 million just to do safety approvals and licensing of commercial space launches and re-entries. Moreover, the FAA reauthorization bill, signed into law on October 5, 2018, supports a huge increase of up to $76 million in fiscal year 2023, along with the responsibility to develop spaceport policy and create an Office of Spaceports.[6]

On the other hand, to better address space issues with their internal resources, DoC has proposed establishing a Bureau of Space Commerce and elevating the position of the bureau’s director to an assistant secretary for space commerce, reporting directly to the Secretary of Commerce. The proposed legislation would also authorize $10 million for the Bureau of Space Commerce for each of the fiscal years 2020 through 2024. Ultimately, the bureau would be able to reorganize and consolidate other DoC offices, like the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office (CRSRA), as well as reduce and streamline regulations to create a favorable economic environment for commercial space activities in the United States. Reportedly, as the Bureau continues to reorganize and consolidate its DoC offices, it could eventually become an entity known as the Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise (SPACE) Administration.[7]

The legislation proposed by the Commerce Department to create and fund the Bureau of Space Commerce is a major step in the right direction to consolidate executive space offices and facilitate commercial space activity in the United States. However, other space offices are housed in Department of Transportation, NASA, the FCC, and the Department of State.[8] Therefore, even after the Bureau of Space Commerce comes into existence and receives adequate funding, further reorganization and coordination among executive space offices would be needed to adequately address the daunting national and international issues involved with fostering safe and effective SSA, orbital debris mitigation and removal, and STM worldwide. Such reorganization could be carried out by evolving the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps into a transparently operating umbrella entity to coordinate all executive space offices, an act potentially achievable by the Commerce Secretary simply adapting its mission.[9]

Space Policy Directive-3 mandates for DoC

As mentioned above, SPD-3 directs the Commerce Department to facilitate enhanced data sharing by becoming “responsible for the publicly releasable portion of the DoD [space object] catalog.”[10] SPD-3 further directs DoC to carry enhanced data sharing by establishing and managing an “open architecture [SSA] data repository.”[11]

A “data repository” can consist of a set of databases, spreadsheets, and even text files. An OADR for space objects and related SSA information would be a non-proprietary, shared data repository, allowing all predetermined users, including those in competition with one another, to add or update data and sources of space domain information to increase the repository’s functionality, capacity, flexibility, interoperability, and sustainability. Using a blockchain ledger to keep track of all SSA data in the OADR would appear to be the most efficient way to maintain the data secure, while sharing it in real time. The non-profit OADR manager and the donors and users of the blockchain ledger would instantly see any deviant SSA report, making it very difficult for a malevolent actor to pollute the data pool with the aim of gaining advantage over, or harming the interests of, other OADR stakeholders.

Why would DoC need a consortium to provide effective space situational awareness?

Consider the public-private consortium Space Data Association (SDA), an international organization that connects multiple satellite operators, as well as NASA and NOAA. Formed in 2009, SDA aims to enhance safety of flight via sharing of operational data and promotion of best practices across the industry. SDA also works to improve the accuracy and timeliness of collision warning notifications, as well as working with all interested entities to help define the next generation of STM systems and capabilities. The bottom line is that some satellite operators consider SSA data from SDA to be more actionable than SSA data from the DoD catalog alone.

But SDA is not the only consortium producing enhanced SSA data, such as resident space object characterization and mission assurance services to monitor threats and sustain safety in space. Consider also AGI ComSpOC with its own network of space object sensors to produce such actionable SSA data. Finally, consider a public-private consortium with university ties, like the Australia-based Space Environment Research Centre (SERC), producing actionable SSA data. These SSA-sharing entities are structured as consortia for a reason: to have multiple sources of SSA data from which to pick, choose, and analyze.

Academia has the advantage of being able to use university human and material resources already in place and funded by other entities.

The DoC must have an SSA analyzing and sharing capacity better than these three entities. Otherwise, why should countries and space businesses turn to the United States for actionable SSA data? Once satellite operators and state entities begin using and gaining confidence in DoC-connected, standardized, and curated SSA data, it will be easier to bring them in for other space-related business and establish US leadership internationally. Yet, with any executive expansion of duties, there will be great pressure to beat the competition with the least cost to taxpayers. That's where academia comes in.

How can academia cost-effectively enhance an SSA-sharing consortium?

Any OADR where the data from the space catalog is simply accumulated in a jumble would be of little practical use. To be useful, the data in the shared repository must be curated. That is, independent personnel must find, group, organize, and then share the best and most relevant data. This should also involve tagging the data so that it can be tracked from its origin, evaluated as to its usefulness through time, and after that assessment, traced back to specific sources and methods for further ongoing evaluation that can be used to select more data for the OADR. In other words, data in an OADR also needs to be interpreted by independent personnel and standardized to be truly useful as a basis for SSA-relevant actions, such as actionable conjunction warnings, launch window timing, or safe orbit placement. Moreover, such OADR data curation and Space Catalog sharing must be carried out cost effectively to be practical, and here academia has the advantage of being able to use university human and material resources already in place and funded by other entities.[12]

For example, an academia-involved consortium put together by a cooperative agreement, like that used by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, could carry out such work with less expense[13] and more intellectual freedom than traditional national research frameworks like federally funded research and development centers and national laboratories, although these should serve as so-called affiliate members to provide technical guidance and stewardship.[14] Moreover, a university-involved consortium managed by a DoC-selected or -created non-profit would have the advantage of drawing from a variety of sources for SSA data to feed its OADR, including public and private entities and even other consortia. However, whatever SSA resource is used, “sanitizing” all national security sensitive data must be the first and primary function for DoD, before it hands over SSA data to the consortium.

The National Space Council should seriously consider 1) selecting or creating a non-profit entity with academic links to form and manage an SSA data-sourcing and sharing consortium and 2) directing that non-profit entity to establish and manage an OADR to curate and share of non-militarily sensitive SSA data via a blockchain ledger connecting carefully selected SSA providers and recipients.

A notional DoC non-profit entity, tentatively called the “Space Situational Awareness Institute (SSAI), could collect, curate, and interpret non-militarily sensitive space catalog/OADR data for the DoC, in coordination with AST and DoD. The SSAI could be advised by a leading and globally-recognized expert US academic institution in this topic area, like the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin or the University of Arizona Defense and Security Institute.

For example, a current collaborative effort with the US government is ASTRIAGraph, initially funded by the FAA Center of Excellence in Commercial Space Transportation. ASTRIAGraph is a multi-source information knowledge graph database that collects, curates, and displays hypotheses on space objects and events, publicly accessed at. This system is located at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which recently received $60 million in NSF funding.[15] This investment could be directly leveraged for the DoC SSAI, or even form the basis of a DoC non-profit entity in coordination with FAA.

Via cooperative agreements approved by US government agencies, SSAI could link transparently with other universities with SSA programs throughout the world, such as the Technical University at Braunschweig Germany (developer of the ESA MASTER Space Debris Model)[16] , the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern, Switzerland, the SERC Australia, and others already in collaboration with US academic institutions.

Actionable SSA data provided by the proposed SSAI will foster the safety and profitability of space operations.

Although some SSA entities could have foreign military connections, the DoD withholding of militarily sensitive SSA data from a US-based SSA consortium would provide national security protection. Thus, national security exposure would be the problem for other nation states. Because SSA is a major element of any effective STM effort,[17] academia could thusly provide DoC with a cost-effective, geopolitically benign doorway to US SSA/STM leadership on a global scale (i.e. Track 2 Diplomacy.)

Attracting and supporting commercial space

Space commerce will soon depend upon new spacecraft and other infrastructure in Earth orbits, cislunar space, and even deep space. This expansion into outer space will entail economic and human health risks that could be ameliorated with wise government policy, industry-enabling regulations, and protections for commerce. To the extent government space policy and regulation in the United States can become more standardized, stable, industry-enabling, and financially protective despite risks to property and persons, investors will be more likely to risk capital on new space businesses in the United States. Government and private insurance can also be enabling for commercial space.

Actionable SSA data provided by the proposed SSAI will foster the safety and profitability of space operations. For example, a world-premier OADR center housed in DoC and producing close to “real time” actionable conjunction warnings and other helpful SSA data would eliminate the need for satellites to consume fuel to maneuver in doubtful cases, and thus would extend the life of spacecraft and boost corporate earnings. Actionable SSA data will also reduce collision avoidance, or COLA, restrictions on launch windows. From a cost and convenience perspective, the longer the available launch window, the more time a launch provider will have to resolve anomalies, wait out unfavorable weather or range intrusions and still make the launch.

Congress can also play a key enabling role by recognizing that any emerging industry involves some level of risk to persons and property. Therefore, any governance framework Congress helps to formulate must therefore call for identifying a level of risk acceptable for the continued progress of commercial and civil space development.

The US can lead the world by streamlining commercial licensing for a safe and stable space operations environment

One key example of a crucial space regulatory framework concerns launch services in the face of a future dramatic increase in launch rates. As noted above, Congress has passed legislation to fund the expansion of AST personnel and services to carry out the timely issuances of launch licenses and related approvals. Moreover, efforts are underway to streamline existing regulations for commercial remote sensing and create an enabling licensing regime for “non-traditional” commercial space activities, like satellite servicing and lunar landers.[18]

In the face of increasing launch activity, if our nation can offer the industry quicker, safer, better-coordinated, and standardized launch services with enhanced SSA and STM, and more financial protection in case of the inevitable accidents that are part of progress in any industry, more commercial space companies will want to fly from the US, and more space investment will be attracted to the US.

How to pay for enhancing SSA and expanding launch services?

Currently, no single national or international entity exists to collect and allocate funds for safe and secure space operations or enhancement. Yet the need for such funds will only grow as we face the task of cleaning up orbital debris, safely managing the coming avalanche of new space traffic, and financing public infrastructure and systems in support of private and government activities in space.

Congress and the administration should work diligently with private and public space stakeholders, domestically and abroad, to design and engage national and international collection and allocation mechanisms to finance enhanced SSA and comprehensive STM worldwide.

The financial situation is simple: pay now, or pay much more later. Even without launching another satellite, with time there will be more collisions between large bodies and more catastrophic breakups, and cleaning up the mess will cost us all more and threaten the satellite services that support our modern industrial societies. But STM, which ultimately includes both orbital debris avoidance and removal, needs greatly enhanced SSA to create a space environment safe for people and spacecraft. It behooves the United States, therefore, to adequately fund the enhancement of SSA capability with an academia-involved non-profit entity, as well as to adequately fund all executive space offices.

As space commerce expands, a national trust fund could collect and disburse funds to pay for SSA and STM expansion and enhancement. Although funds for enhanced SSA and orbital debris cleanup could be raised from federal taxes, launch fees, or orbital parking fees, commercial satellite companies could also take a leading role, in coordination with government, to proactively charge satellite service end-user fees as a first step for accruing trust funds for SSA and STM enhancement as well as later orbital debris cleanup. Although most commercial satellites are currently in geosynchronous orbit, most of the coming wave of new commercial satellites will be launched to low Earth orbit, where most of the orbital debris currently resides and where the most acute traffic management issues will soon arise. Congress and the administration should work diligently with private and public space stakeholders, domestically and abroad, to design and engage national and international collection and allocation mechanisms to finance enhanced SSA and comprehensive STM worldwide.


  1. A space object catalog is a collection of historical and predicted positions of space objects, which are identified through a numbering system. The primary DoD Space Catalog is maintained by the 18th Space Control Squadron (18th SPCS) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) in California. A second, semi-independent, backup catalog is still maintained by the USAF in Dahlgren, Virginia, because of the legacy architecture of the Space Fence. A third space object catalog, receiving commercial SSA data as well as 18th SPCS catalog data, is maintained at Schriever AFB in Colorado by the National Space Defense Center (NSDC), formerly known as JICSpOC. Thus, the so-called “DoD Catalog” consists of a primary catalog, sharing at least some information with two other DoD space object catalogs. The three DoD catalogs all use the same basic numbering system with international designators to identify space objects but have different positional data for those objects. (Space Catalog information taken from email conversations with Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.)
  2. See pages 6/13 - 7/13 of “Space Policy Directive-3, National Space Traffic Management Policy,” June 18, 2018.
  3. We define space situational awareness (SSA) broadly as the knowledge and characterization of all aspects of space, with special emphasis on the detection, cataloguing, and orbit prediction of objects orbiting the Earth and other celestial bodies, such as the Moon. SSA is an effort to avoid collisions between orbiting satellites and debris, provide safe reentries, detect on-orbit explosions, assist missions at launch, deployment, and end-of-life, and reduce the cost of space access.
  4. Remarks by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during his keynote address at the “Arizona State University Congressional Conference: Space Innovation” on August 20, 2018.
  5. Foust, Jeff. “New Office of Space Commerce director to focus on advocacy and regulatory issues,” SpaceNews, August 23, 2018.
  6. Smith, Marcia. “Compromise FAA Reauthorization Bill Includes Funding Authority, Directives for FAA Space Office,” SpacePolicyOnline, September 24, 2018.
  7. Foust, Jeff. “New Office of Space Commerce director to focus on advocacy and regulatory issues,” SpaceNews, August 23, 2018.
  8. For an overview of federal space offices, see this white paper.
  9. National Space Society, “United States Space Guard: A New Civil Entity to Protect Persons and Property per ‘Space Policy Directive-3’”, August 2018.
  10. “Space Policy Directive-3, National Space Traffic Management Policy,” June 18, 2018, Sec. 5 (a) (ii), pgs. 6/13 – 7/13.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ten Eyck, Brian C. and Moriba K. Jah for the 20th Annual Global MilSatCom. “Academia’s role in space protection, space traffic management, and orbital debris mitigation,” ROOM: The Space Journal, November 6-8, 2018. Note that one full time grad student costs about $90,000 a year, and with faculty advisement it is about $100,000 a year, versus one full-time employee at any company, which is about $250,000 a year. Also, a university SSA unit can leverage/utilize resources already funded by other sources for minor incremental cost. For instance, the SSA unit can use standing computational resources.
  13. Besides differences in salaries previously noted, academia can also leverage standing university computational resources nearly free of incremental cost as compared to things like Amazon cloud.
  14. Academic SSA information from phone and email conversations with Dr. Moriba K. Jah (UT Austin) during late September and early October 2018.
  15. Academic SSA information from phone and email conversations with Dr. Moriba K. Jah (UT Austin) during late September and early October 2018.
  16. ESA, “ESA Makes Space Debris Software Available on-line,” June 25, 2014.
  17. For a detailed discussion of how SSA relates to STM, see National Space Society August 2018 policy paper, “United States Space Guard: A New Civil Entity to Protect Persons and Property per ‘Space Policy Directive-3’”, August 2018 with minor updates September 2018.
  18. Foust, Jeff. “House passes commercial space regulatory bill,” SpaceNews, April 25 2018.

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