Space Data Assn., AGI working to improve commercial space traffic center

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WASHINGTON — The Space Data Association and Analytical Graphics, Inc. hope their partnership will be the next step in improving commercial space situational awareness capabilities.

The organizations announced March 6 they reached an agreement to launch an updated Space Data Center Space Traffic Management service that will provide satellite tracking, radio frequency spectrum management, and conjunction warning services to companies.

Dubbed SDC 2.0, it will build upon the first iteration of the center, Mark Rawlins, SDA chairman, told SpaceNews.

“We put into place in 2012 the last system of the Space Data Center,” he said, speaking March 9 at the Satellite 2017 conference here. “That’s allowed us to learn, to learn where we need to do more, it’s pointed to problems that we’ve got in our processes as satellite operators and it enables us to identify a set of parameters we realized were missing in the original system.”

Two years ago, the organization began a review to see how it could grow its SSA capabilities. One of the key takeaways was to create an independent database for satellite tracking that relies less on information provided from the companies themselves.

Rawlins noted that the previous system would often take information from the satellite operators and then try to predict an orbit. But it became clear that had “biases or errors” he said, noting that the position of some satellites was found to be as far off as 14 or 15 kilometers from their actual location.

That meant that the accuracy of avoiding collisions wasn’t where it needed to be.

“If you’ve got an uncertainty on where your spacecraft is, you’ve got uncertainty of where the debris is, then you have to make large allowances for where it’s going to be,” Rawlins said. “It’s going to be in this ball somewhere, and the debris is going to be in another ball, and if there’s an intersection between those balls then you generate a warning. Because the balls were so large, this resulted in a large number of warnings. When you’ve got a lot of warnings, which a lot of them are false, it creates a lot of workload.”

The goal with working more closely with AGI is “reducing risk and improving reliability,” he said.

“The risk of collision in geostationary has been analyzed and found to be higher than previously understood,” said Paul Welsh, vice president of business development at AGI. “The accuracy, the transparency, the availability [of information], the number of objects, all those things are going up.”

“The proactive measures of the SDA and the first Space Data Center, this is just the next level of that,” Welsh continued. “Protecting the orbital environment for current operations and generations to come is kind of a key thing. We’ve learned a lot from our endeavours to date, including the additional things that now need to be done, and that’s what this next level is.”

The contract will retain AGI as the technical partner and services provider for SDA in the endeavour, a statement from the companies said. A sum was not announced.

Since its founding in 2009, SDA has served as an international association for satellite operators to connect and share information on the orbits, locations, and safety information of their spacecraft.

Overseen by Inmarsat, Intelsat, Eutelsat, and SES, it’s largely been the commercial space sector’s internal answer to the problem of orbit congestion, an effort to provide transparency and openness that might not be possible from some of the U.S. Defense Department’s SSA capabilities.

Likewise, AGI has designed its Commercial Space Operations Center, or ComSpOC — located in Exton, Pennsylvania — to be an operations hub for SSA that will now, thanks to the agreement, take on an even larger role in providing information for the commercial sector.