PARIS — A not-for-profit grouping of global satellite fleet operators that pools data on satellite locations, maneuvers and broadcast frequencies to improve safety is promising legal sanctions if any member misuses the data.
The Space Data Association (SDA) says the legal agreements that members sign before gaining admission are written to dissuade operators from taking undue advantage of access to others’ proprietary data.
“If you use that data for anything other than the purposes it is provided for, which is operational integrity — if you use it for sales and marketing — we will sue you,” said Stewart Sanders, director of the Isle of Man-based SDA and a senior vice president at satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. “Individual (members) will sue each other and we’ll see you in court. Therefore, you can offer the data and share it with other operators confident that this data is protected.”
Created in 2009 by fleet operators SES, Inmarsat of London and Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, the SDA now counts 19 fleet operators as members. That is a big improvement from its initial months of operation, but the organization still lacks members from several nations with large or expanding commercial or government fleets, including China, India, Japan and Russia.
Most satellite frequency interference is unintentional, the result of ground terminal operators’ lack of training in the use of their dishes, or of defects in the hardware. To reduce the amount of time it takes to locate the source of interference, SDA members submit data on their satellites’ exact positions and frequencies.
The members also pool information on satellite in-orbit maneuvers as a way of avoiding interference due to satellites moving along the geostationary arc some 36,000 kilometers over the equator.
In an April 2 presentation to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) space security conference in Geneva, which was co-organized by the Secure World Foundation of Broomfield, Colo., Sanders said the SDA’s database has proved more accurate than the U.S. Defense Department’s network of ground radars in pinpointing the location of satellites in geostationary orbit.
Sanders said that when Intelsat’s Galaxy 15 satellite was drifting uncontrolled along the geostationary arc for several months in 2010, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network mistook it for other satellites whose orbital slots were being entered and exited by Galaxy 15 during its drift.
A 3 percent error rate in data provided by the U.S. radar network’s two-line elements was recorded, and under some situations one out of five data sets was inaccurate.
Because satellite operators know exactly where their satellites are, the SDA database more accurately pinpointed the whereabouts of Galaxy 15. As it happened, many of the satellites whose orbital slots Galaxy 15 was traversing were owned by Intelsat or SES, the world’s two largest commercial fleet operators, and both members of SDA.
A collision of two satellites in geostationary orbit is not a top-tier concern of space insurance underwriters because it is viewed as highly unlikely. But Sanders said SDA members at some point should benefit from reduced insurance premiums by virtue of their following best-practice safety measures.
Alternatively, he said, insurance underwriters could simply raise the rates on non-SDA members.
SDA’s role in helping members secure or defend frequency rights at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations organization that regulates orbital slots and frequency assignments, remains complicated.
Sanders said SDA’s ability to track radio frequency interference remains a work in progress, but that “our intent has always been to create a data base of interference events and to share data that supports geo-location. Data shared with the SDA by definition in the member agreement can be used to validate complaints taken to the ITU.”
But SDA members cannot use the data for commercial purposes, nor can they leverage SDA information to secure orbital-slot rights. This means a member cannot “prove” it has begun the use of a reserved orbital slot within the ITU deadline by furnishing SDA data. “It’s not there for that purpose,” Sanders said.