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

WASHINGTON — The Chinese government has asked the U.S. Air Force to send warnings of potential satellite collisions directly to its space operators, with no detour through the U.S. State Department, the service’s top space official said Dec. 5.

Speaking at a breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club here, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the Air Force has long provided data on any potential on-orbit collisions to the parties involved. In the case of China and Russia, however, that data must be routed through the State Department, and often through the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries, before reaching their military satellite operators.

China recently asked that the data be sent directly to its satellite operators in the name of expediency and Hyten said the Air Force would comply the next time it spots a potential collision involving Chinese space hardware.

“It takes a long time to get through that process. Sometimes too long,” Hyten said. “The Chinese just a little while ago said, ‘We’d very much like that data direct.’”

Hyten acknowledged that providing the data itself is not a fundamental change, but said the new procedure would avoid bureaucratic holdups and enable quicker action by Chinese operators, such as maneuvering their satellites out of harm’s way.

“To me it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because they asked,” he said. “We want to space to be a safe place.”

During a July meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing, the two sides committed to continuing discussions on a way for China to access more detailed technical collision avoidance information from U.S. Strategic Command, according to a July release on the U.S. State Department. That information would come through Strategic Command’s Spacetrack website, which provides basic satellite catalog information, including positional data and background information.

The new arrangement does not cover more specific space situational awareness data, Hyten said.

The Defense Department operates the world’s most sophisticated space surveillance system and has long been the de facto provider of collision-avoidance and other types of data to other spacefaring nations, many of which are beefing up their own capabilities. Defense Department officials in September said the U.S. government has signed nearly 50 broader data-sharing agreements with other governments and private-sector entities.

Hyten acknowledged China is a bit of an unlikely partner.

In January 2007, China’s military deliberately destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites known as Fengyun-1C using a ground-based ballistic missile. The action left a cloud of potentially hazardous debris in a heavily used belt of Earth orbit and was widely condemned internationally.

This past August, the State Department said the Chinese government conducted another, albeit nondestructive, anti-satellite test, and senior Pentagon officials have warned in recent months about growing threats to U.S. national security space assets from China and Russia.

But data on impending close orbital encounters, known as conjunctions, is widely shared under the premise that any collision would generate more debris, creating a more dangerous environment for all spacecraft.

Hyten called the change “tremendous” and “awesome.”

“That is [an example of] the kind of international partnerships we need to think about,” he said.

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.