Editorial | Toward an International Space Surveillance Network

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Meaningful cooperative accords in the space arena, especially where defense is involved, are few and far between. So it’s noteworthy that in the span of a year the United States has managed to sign space situational awareness (SSA) agreements with Australia, Italy and Japan.

All three pacts will improve monitoring and safety in the orbital environment, the value of which cannot be overstated as space becomes, to use the Obama administration’s oft-repeated phrase, increasingly congested, contested and competitive. They represent tangible progress in the administration’s stated strategy of working closely with U.S. allies to improve space capabilities and security in a tough fiscal environment.

Under the agreement with Australia, announced last November, a U.S. space surveillance radar will be relocated to Australia to serve as a key node in the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. The two sides are also working toward placing a U.S.-designed optical space surveillance telescope in Australia.

More recently, on Oct. 3, the U.S. State and Defense departments announced SSA data-sharing agreements with Japan and Italy, respectively. Significantly, Japan also has agreed to work toward providing data from its own civilian-operated space surveillance assets to the United States. 

Currently the U.S. Defense Department, whose Space Surveillance Network is by far the world’s most sophisticated, is the de facto provider of SSA data to the other spacefaring countries, including those viewed as potential adversaries. But this traditionally has been done largely on an ad hoc basis — data are shared as necessary to avoid collisions whose resulting debris would pose a hazard to all who use the orbital commons.

That data sharing process has now been streamlined for Italy and Japan. If Italy wants to be sure it can move a satellite without hitting a nearby object, for example, it provides the relevant data to the Pentagon’s Joint Space Operations Center, which now can respond directly with guidance. Previously, the center would have to run that request up through the chain of command, a time- and resource-consuming process. 

The agreement with Japan goes a step further by laying the groundwork for integrating Japan’s space-surveillance assets into the U.S. system. Without naming which specific Japanese assets might be involved, the State Department said the two sides committed to early provision of data by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a civilian agency that just a few years ago operated under a mandate to steer clear of activity related to military space.

JAXA operates at least two facilities capable of providing SSA data: the Bisei Spaceguard Center, which operates optical telescopes capable of tracking geostationary orbiting objects as small as 1 meter in diameter; and the Kamisaibara Spaceguard Center, an S-band radar. Construction of these facilities was approved in 1998.

The Bisei facility likely is of particular interest to the Defense Department because it would provide — along with the Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance telescope in Hawaii and possibly the optical system planned for Australia — another set of strategically located eyes on the geostationary orbit arc 36,000 kilometers above the equator. The Pentagon has purchased, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, a satellite designed for geostationary-orbit surveillance but for budgetary reasons has deferred investing in a second system that some say is needed for global coverage.

The United States and Japan are not quite there yet on two-way SSA data sharing, but the Oct. 3 announcement is a good indication that a deal is well within reach in the near term — provided, of course, that the JAXA data are compatible with U.S. systems.  

It also appears that SSA agreements with other U.S. allies are in the works, which along with those already negotiated will make Earth orbit a safer place for all concerned. The Obama administration has earned kudos for its lead role in this growing success story.