As operator of the world’s most capable space surveillance system, the U.S. military is inevitably at the heart of any effort to maintain order in an increasingly crowded and complex orbital environment.
But the space-dependent Pentagon is somewhat conflicted in this inherited responsibility: It fully recognizes that it’s in its best interests to share orbital data that can prevent debris-causing collisions, but at the same time is wary of compromising national security by giving away too much.
Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force captain specializing in space surveillance, is technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the long-term sustainability of space and better use of space for benefits on Earth. One of his roles in that capacity is nudging the U.S. military in the direction of sharing orbital data more openly and better leveraging the growing space-related capabilities of its allies.
Weeden spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.
From a surveillance standpoint, what’s your favorite object in space?
Back during the early days of the Cold War, the Air Force had this idea that, well, we can put these tens of thousands of little needles, which are basically small antennas into low Earth orbit, and they would act as sort of a barrier we can bounce radio signals off of. It allowed for much better long-range radio communications. It’s called the West Ford project. It didn’t really work as they expected it would and now you have these clumps and clusters of essentially little antennas that are really reflective of radar floating around in low Earth orbit.
What’s one thing you would love to see change in space surveillance?
There are now 12 different countries that can launch objects into space. There are on the order of about 1,000 active satellites on orbit that can provide a whole range of services. A significant portion of those satellites are owned and operated by commercial companies. And there are something on the order of 50 countries that have at least one satellite. The challenge we’re seeing with space surveillance is that a lot of the mindset in how it’s done is rooted in Cold War thinking. It’s still for the most part done by militaries for national security purposes because that’s where it has its roots. And while that’s still important, there are all these new applications and needs for space situational awareness in addition to the national security part. That’s the real challenge we’re seeing. How do we update the approach to space situational awareness to match all these new needs?
What’s an example of that?
In 2009 there was this collision between two satellites, a U.S. Iridium commercial communications satellite and a dead Russian Cosmos military communications satellite. That was one of several wakeup calls. As a result of that, the U.S. government was faced with a conundrum: They didn’t want another one of those collisions to happen because they’re acutely aware of how reliant the U.S. is on space and those kinds of collisions generate more debris which threatens their own satellites. Plus, if it were to happen between two national security satellites, there could be some significant geopolitical concerns. But they’re the only ones that really have the data that can be used to prevent that from happening. So they essentially have three choices: They can make their data public so everyone can do their own kind of collision avoidance conjunction assessment analysis; they can keep the data to themselves and provide a service that does that for everybody else; or they can look to developing some sort of international space surveillance or collision-warning service that does that for everybody.
Which do you favor?
I argued for the first option for making their data public. But it can’t just be the U.S. government; there have to be other data sources because there are holes, gaps and shortcomings. The choice they did make was to provide a service for all the other satellite operators. I think just last year there were something on the order of 100 or so maneuvers done by satellite operators to avoid potential collisions. There’s a strong element within the U.S. government that feels that publishing that data would reveal some capability limitations that could endanger national security and so they feel it’s better for them to control it. But at the same time they don’t want other countries to develop their own systems because then, well, they lose control anyway. They’re trying to thread a needle to both try and prevent collisions without jeopardizing national security and revealing what they rightly consider to be a pretty significant advantage they have over other countries in space.
Can “rules of the road” work for space?
They have to work. You can’t have 50, 60 countries and all these commercial actors all doing this crazy stuff in space without any norms of behavior, without any real rules. That’s anarchy and chaos. Whether it comes out of a formal, legal document or broad multilateral negotiations or it just emerges on its own is the question.
Are there rules that you think are especially necessary?
An easy example would be what you do with your satellite at the end of life. More satellite operators are beginning to properly dispose of their satellites but it’s still far from the norm. In geostationary orbit I think 40-50 percent are moved out and disposed of properly. In low Earth orbit, I think the number is somewhere around 10 percent. One of the challenges is some of these satellites were designed and built 20-30 years ago. So we have a grandfather problem.
What do you think of the idea of a space trash truck?
Debris removal is definitely a part of the equation. The question of course is which objects and how and by whom?
Do you see debris removal as a commercial enterprise?
It’s pretty clear to me that the prospects of having some sort of a market or salvage service are pretty low. One reason is that in the area where the debris problem is worst, low Earth orbit, no one’s making any money. The vast majority of actors in low Earth orbit are governments. Ultimately when we’re looking at low Earth orbit, it’s going to have to be some sort of public money. Some have floated the option of governments paying into a common pot that’s used for cleanup, but I think governments removing some of their own stuff, maybe in cooperation with a couple of others, is a more realistic option at this point.
What was your impression of the U.S. decision to cancel the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) system?
Full disclosure: My wife is Canadian military. The Canadians recently launched their own satellite that does space debris tracking called Sapphire. While it doesn’t deliver nearly as much capability as SBSS, it was several times cheaper. That’s a really interesting contrast to U.S. military thinking about space. The classical thinking was we needed to spend a lot of money and develop a very high-end capability to support some exquisite goals. The alternative is spending less money to get a little bit less capability but you may be able to do that more often.
The other interesting thing about SBSS is it’s one case where the U.S. really needs to look at what kinds of capabilities it can get from its partners. We’ve historically been so used to being able to do it all ourselves. We’re starting to see a number of different U.S. allies that are all putting together some of their own niche space capabilities that are pretty good, in some cases better than we have, and the question then becomes, well, why buy our own when we can get it from them? There are all these very interesting possibilities when we actually get serious about international cooperation.
What will it take to make that happen? Will it be economics?
Absolutely. More cold, stark reality.
What do you see as an emerging issue in space traffic management?
The interface between air space and orbital space. That’s not a huge issue at the moment, but if we look 10 years down the road at the prospect of having a lot more suborbital space activity, some of the commercial tourism aspects, and launch vehicles that may be taking off from airports and coming back down, that is going to emerge as important.