Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command said in 2013 — as vice commander — sequestration cuts forced the service to lay off about half of its space operations contractor workforce. Credit: Xinia Productions/Jose Morales

MAUI, Hawaii — The U.S. government needs to clarify its space situational awareness data-sharing policies to deal with an expected flood of new and more-accurate data and surging demand for such information among both national and private sector satellite operators, experts here said.

Too often, Washington’s data-sharing policies are overly broad and fail to keep pace with technological advances, experts said during the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference here. Moreover, implementation of existing policies tends to be slowed by overly cautious Defense Department and industry personnel who fear inadvertently sharing too much information, they said.

Advocates here acknowledged that the conversation has gradually shifted from whether the U.S. government should be sharing space situational awareness to working out the mechanics of how and when to do so.

“We’re starting to talk about the ‘how’, not the ‘if,’” said Andrew D’Uva, the founder of the Providence Access Co. satellite consultancy and one of the originators of the Space Data Association, an international cooperative of satellite operators that pools data on orbital locations, maneuvers and broadcast frequencies to improve safety.

The U.S. Air Force is deploying new sensors and data processing capabilities that are expected to dramatically improve what already is the world’s most sophisticated space surveillance system. Among these new assets is the Space Fence, an S-band radar that when fully deployed on the Kwajalein Atoll in 2019 will be able to track more than 200,000 orbiting objects, several times the number that can be tracked today.

That information will almost surely become crucial to many satellite operators, both government and commercial, to help avoid collisions and provide a more-detailed look at the space environment. But it is unclear how much, if any, of the improved data will be shared.

At the same time, industry officials believe there is a growing market in providing space situational awareness data through subscription services. At least two companies, Analytical Graphics Inc. of Exton, Pennsylvania, and Lockheed Martin Information Services and Global Solutions of Herndon, Virginia, are deploying or planning their own surveillance assets.

Speakers at panels throughout the conference said the application of U.S. policy, including the specifics on how much data and what type can be shared, and with whom, remains murky. That could lead companies to err on the side of caution.

“As a company, for us to act responsibly, we have to act conservatively,” said Matthew Bold, a research scientist at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “By having ambiguity our hands are tied.”

In a session on international collaboration, panelists from France and Germany said they would have few hesitations about sharing certain kinds of orbital data with China and Russia. Already, the U.S. Defense Department widely shares specific information, including collision avoidance information, with countries including China, the premise being a safer space environment benefits all players, they said.

Several other speakers throughout the forum questioned how much data and what types could be shared under U.S. export control laws.

During a Sept. 9 keynote address, however, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, suggested that concerns about the policy itself are misplaced.

“I really don’t think policy is the issue,” Hyten said of the 2010 U.S. National Security Space Policy, which includes language on sharing orbital data . “This is not a U.S. problem. This is a world problem. This is a problem we have to engage with our allies.”

Hyten pointed to what he described as “hard-fought” language in the U.S. policy supporting improved collection and sharing of space surveillance data, both domestically and internationally.

Instead of embracing the policy, he said, too often “our own biases get in the way” of following the policy’s spirit and prevent its proper implementation.

Speakers also repeated throughout the conference that the United States must take advantage of space surveillance information from international sources in order to have a more complete picture of what is happening in space.

Space situational awareness data “sharing should not be a one-way street,” said Josef Koller, space policy adviser for the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. He noted that the U.S. government has signed nearly 50 data-sharing agreements with other governments and private sector entities.

That sentiment was echoed by Thomas Schildknecht, a professor at the Astronomical Institute at University of Bern, Switzerland, who said organizations need to “provide mutually valuable data.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.