Time for Defense Department to relinquish reigns on SSA, Pentagon expert says

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WASHINGTON – The ever growing number of satellites means a new organization is needed to catalog and track objects in orbit for the commercial space sector, experts said March 7.

“At some point the space community needs to say ‘we better get our arms around this management problem before people start running into each other,’ because that really ought to be chilling,” said John Hill, principal director of space policy for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

Speaking at the Satellite 2017 conference here, Hill said the Pentagon wants a partner in space traffic management.

“Whether it is a civil regulatory agency’s mission, whether it is an industry consortium that sets it up, we’re kind of agnostic about it in the Defense Department. We would say it does need to happen,” he said.

Space situational awareness has become a “collateral duty” of the DoD, an outgrowth of its space missions, Hill said. And while the department does benefit greatly from the capability, it’s time for someone else to take the lead on technology development and management.

“You look across all technology sectors: even though defense may have started the development of the particular sector, over time it democratized,” he said. “The trick for DoD is to figure out how do we move from being the driver of the technology to being the first one to capture the commercial innovation. It’s not something we’re traditionally very good at, but we eventually get there.”

Yet DoD will always maintain an SSA capability, Hill said. It just wants partners to better work with industry.

“Because our military is so enabled by space, we have to know what is going on in space,” he said. “Space situational awareness is fundamental to our entire way of war, it is fundamental to deterring conflict, it is fundamental to world peace.”

George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, believes his agency is positioned to best serve as a commercial SSA hub.

Already tasked with certifying and tracking rocket launches, Nield said FAA is balanced between regulating safety and benefiting companies. But the agency doesn’t have the resources or funding it needs yet to pursue the mission.

If the issue were addressed in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, Nield said he believes a commercial SSA regulatory arm of FAA could be set up by 2020 and become fully operational by 2021.

“The time is now,” he said. “We really need to stop talking about this and get busy.”