Op-ed | Safety in Space Requires Commercial and Government Response

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Following the completion of the Strategic Space Posture Review (first in January 2011 and updated in March 2015), U.S. top military leaders regularly speak of significant threats to our space domain, due to debris and actions of hostile parties.

“Unfortunately, there are some nations that have chosen to demonstrate anti-satellite weapons that not only destroy the satellite, but create debris that threatens the entire space environment,” U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a speech at the 31st Space Symposium.

It is an issue that demands immediate attention, especially as our space environment grows increasingly crowded: The Department of Defense monitors an estimated 23,000 man-made objects in space, and 1,200 of them are active satellites. (Debris or inactive satellites account for most of the rest.) About 60 nations own and operate satellites, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee project that nearly 30 commercial space launches will take place annually through 2021. The abundance of traffic in and into space increases the risk for accidents and operational disruptions.

In other words, space is becoming “congested, contested and competitive,” as the 2011 National Security Space Strategy report puts it.

The time has come for responsible leadership within our industry and government to jointly develop strategies and policies to ensure our satellite launches and operations are conducted within a safe orbital environment. Such an environment remains critical to preserve the freedom that allows for today’s level of spectrum access — access that serves as the lifeblood of satellite communications, supporting service men and women during global missions.

Fortunately, the U.S. government is progressing toward this direction. According to the House Armed Services Committee’s “Satellite Communications Provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016” report, “The committee is aware that satellite control functions are accomplished routinely by commercial industry for very large satellite constellations. As such, industry may be able to accomplish some of the military’s ground control activities in a secure, reliable, and cost effective manner. This approach would allow military space operators to focus on operating satellite payloads that deliver military effects on the battlefield and to invest in areas that only the military can do, which includes protecting and defending space assets.”

Additionally, there are concerns about “malicious and destabilizing actions in space,” according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. During a House Armed Services Committee hearing in February, Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said, “We must continue to reinforce the peaceful use of space while ensuring continued space operations through partnerships and resiliency… The U.S. continues to partner with responsible nations, international organizations and commercial firms to promote responsible, peaceful and safe use of space. We also strive to maximize the advantages provided by improved space capabilities while reducing vulnerabilities; and seek to prevent, deter, defeat and operate through attacks on our space capabilities.”

Lt. Gen. John Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command’s 14th Air Force and of Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, echoed Admiral Haney’s sentiments at the 31st Space Symposium, saying that increasing threats justify several national imperatives including the augmentation of U.S. space situational awareness, the integration of U.S. military and intelligence space operations, and the strengthening of space-related ties with U.S. allies and commercial space operators.

Inmarsat recognizes spectrum as a critical domain. Since the company’s establishment in 1979, we have played an industry-leading role in space safety, and we continue to invest to ensure spectrum is available in all frequencies. Today, we own and operate 11 spacecraft flying in geostationary orbit more than 35,000 kilometers above Earth. We are pioneering space communications with trusted global networks and applications to include the L-band Inmarsat-4 satellite constellation, the Global Xpress end-to-end Ka-band network and our unique S-band aviation network across Europe. As a responsible satellite operator, we are committed to doing whatever it takes to improve the “predictability” factor when it comes to completing launches and maneuvering in orbit with minimal risk of congestion-created collisions.

As a responsible, reliable and trusted satellite operator, Inmarsat has stepped up as one of the commercial firms that the U.S. government is turning to for answers about space safety. We are one of the three commercial satellite operators that founded the Space Data Association (SDA) in 2009, after an Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian military communications satellite collided that year, increasing debris within a low area of Earth’s orbit. Through the SDA, we are making it easier for members to share data about their satellite locations as well as any repositioning plans, in the interest of space sustainability and the prevention of in-orbit collisions.

Our efforts are inspiring action: In August 2014, the SDA reached a data-sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command to enhance space situational awareness. Our collaboration will seek not only reductions in accidental collisions but also the elimination of intentional satellite frequency “jamming.”

Through another ongoing initiative, Inmarsat and several other key national security space commercial operators are now piloting the Commercial Integration Cell within the DoD’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). This cell will elevate the military’s visibility of how private-sector satellites function, lending insights as to how to integrate commercial industry capabilities into day-to-day space operations.

Initially, the Commercial Integration Cell will focus upon the improvement of information exchanges related to space situational awareness, interference events, indications/warnings and contingency operations. In addition, the partnership is expected to introduce next steps for enhanced data sharing in the interest of operational safety and mission assurance, including those that will incorporate effective processes for reporting, tracking, resolving and measuring interference events affecting the DoD and commercial satellite communications.

“We are going to have a cell of commercial space operators that will reside at the JSpOC, sit side-by-side with our operators, and allow us to be able to share information more easily,” Lt. Gen. Raymond said in an April speech. “We are committed to making this partnership mutually beneficial to both DoD and our commercial partners.”

These efforts underscore the industry and government’s joint urgency to respond to a crowded, and possibly contentious, space environment.

Inmarsat has proven itself over decades as a trusted leader and partner to the U.S. government, setting standards for responsible launches and safety in space. Our collaborative activities through the SDA and with the U.S. government will hopefully represent the first, pivotal steps toward this — making the establishment of fully secure and reliable satellite operations a reality. We seek to move forward on our spectrum endeavors with companies and governments that are like-minded — and with the continued support of the U.S. government and military leadership, we will keep moving in the right direction, operating collaboratively together.

Rebecca M. Cowen-Hirsch is Inmarsat’s senior vice president for government strategy and policy in the U.S. Government Business Unit, based in Washington.