Space situational awareness experts urge Russia to join orbital neighborhood watch

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WASHINGTON — To prevent collisions in space, nations with advanced orbital monitoring abilities need to share data with each other. Russia, being skilled in space situational awareness (SSA), should be part of the global effort to protect the space environment, experts said March 15 at the Satellite 2018 conference here.

“When we tend to talk about international SSA, we tend to focus on ‘friends and family’ type of people,” said Victoria Samson, Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit focused on space sustainability. “The Russians have an excellent SSA network, and the question is: is there any way we can access that sort of capability?”

Currently, the United States provides a large amount of position information on objects in space through the Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC, an Air Force operation that nations and satellite operators have come to rely on for navigating through space. The Air Force’s Space Fence, a radar system Lockheed Martin is building to track objects in space down to five centimeters, starts operation this year.

SSA experts say the more eyes watching objects in space, the more accurately governments and commercial operators can predict orbits for their spacecraft, and in turn, the better they can predict the likelihood of a collision. Given the magnitude of SSA investments — Space Fence costs $900 million — SSA experts are eager to team up with countries that have already built up the necessary infrastructure.

“The Russians have a very, very good space surveillance network. However, they have a very different approach to sharing that information with others: they don’t,” said Frank Rose, a Brookings senior fellow who was the Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy before becoming the assistant secretary in charge of arms control and treaty verification. “The United States does provide conjunction notifications to both Russia and China, I would note. We have not seen a lot of reciprocity.”

Conjunction notifications are alerts sent when spacecraft or debris may pass within a few kilometers of each other, raising the risk of an impact.

Rose said the onus is not entirely on Russia, however.

Russia's Titov Main Test and Space Systems Control Centre. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defence
Antennas at Russia’s Titov Main Test and Space Systems Control Centre. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defence

“My view is that we in the United States are very good with pushing information out to our partners and allies around the world. We still have quite a bit of work with taking information that our partners have and integrating that with our systems,” Rose said. “As we move forward, I think that’s going to be probably the biggest challenge. You’ve got a lot of capability out there in Europe, in Australia, in South Africa, but we really don’t have a good way to integrate that information to provide all a better picture.”

David Ball, chief executive of the Space Environment Research Centre, an Australian government-funded nonprofit, echoed Samson’s and Rose’s points, saying Russia and China need to be part of the SSA conversation.

“It’s got to be like the international air traffic regime where there is trust between countries and common standards and definitions,” he said.

That includes setting aside other differences for the sake of preserving the space environment.

“If there is an unfortunate collision in the air traffic world, that debris disappears. The environment stays pristine. [In contrast] if you have a collision in space, you can sterilize orbits that we all need to use. It’s important that we have a trusting, open environment,” he added.

Ball, the former chief technology officer of NewSat, an Australian teleport venture that tried unsuccessfully to become a satellite operator in 2011, said it’s imperative to scale up space monitoring before large constellations of medium- and low-Earth-orbiting satellites start launching. Analyst firm Northern Sky Research tracks at least 10 companies planning to build broadband constellations of 100 or more satellites in non-geostationary orbits. This year, SpaceX and Telesat launched prototype satellites as precursors for constellations of 4,500 and 120 satellites each.

“The environment has changed immensely,” he said. “We need to get ahead of this curve before the new constellations form.”

Mark Dickinson, chairman of the Space Data Association (SDA), an international group of satellite operators that share information about satellite positions and maneuvers, also urged further transparency between nations. Neither Roscosmos, nor Russia’s two largest satellite telecom operators, the Russian Satellite Communications Company and Gazprom Space Systems, are SDA members.

“What we need is some transparency,” he said.