WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory recently selected Applied Defense Solutions to spend a year cataloging human-made objects in geostationary orbit using data solely derived from commercial space-surveillance sources.
Tom Kubancik, vice president of advanced programs at Columbia, Maryland-based Applied Defense Solutions (ADS), said the Air Force will compare the company’s cataloging effort against the current gold standard, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network’s Space-Track catalog, to see how the commercially compiled database compares. Kubancik declined to say how much the contract will be worth.
The cataloging project is the second piece of space situational awareness work ADS has picked up from the Air Force in recent days. The Air Force confirmed earlier this week that it awarded a $24.3 million contract to ADS to bring commercially sourced space situational awareness data into the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, or JICSpOC, at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, to support experiments, exercises and contingency operations.
For the cataloging effort, ADS and teammates Lockheed Martin, Pacific Defense Solutions, and the University of Arizona will “initiate a catalog from a zero starting point,” relying on non-government space surveillance capabilities, such as passive radio-frequency receivers, radar, and ground-based optical telescopes, to populate a database of orbital objects.
Air Force Space Command spokeswoman 1Lt. Sarah Burnett, told SpaceNews via email that commercial space situational awareness capabilities have the potential to supplement the government’s capabilities by, for example, providing geographical coverage of “areas where the government does not have assets (radars, telescopes, etc.).
“Non-governmental SSA providers can also demonstrate new techniques, phenomenologies, and technologies, to collect, and exploit SSA more quickly than the government,” Burnett wrote. “The breadth of non-governmental SSA providers, including industry and academia, allows for multiple approaches to detection, tracking, identification, and characterization that will help guide future government SSA investments.”
Burnett referred specific questions about the catalog effort to the Air Force Research Laboratory, which did not immediately respond to a SpaceNews query.
Moriba Jah, director of Space Object Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, where some of the work will be performed, said commercial space-tracking capabilities can provide flexibility to government programs, and could also serve as a back-up in the event of an emergency.
“If, for whatever reason, you have defense-related services that stop working [or are] degraded or disrupted, commercial companies can come to the table, hopefully rapidly, with a variety of sensors and modalities of data collection that could supplement or augment government systems,” he said
The commercially derived data could also be more easily shared with U.S. partners than government-derived data, which can come from classified capabilities.
“The data and information is not derived from government sources, so it’s ultimately much more shareable,” Kubancik said.
But the private sector is also investing in the area for their own commercial interests. If companies are sending up multi-million dollar satellites, they want to make sure the craft aren’t going to bump into anything.
“People [who] want to make a profit from space services and capabilities have a vested interest in making sure they monitor and understand everything in their local region,” Jah said.
As more companies and countries launch into space, including deploying large constellations consisting of hundreds of satellites, interest in SSA is growing – if for no other reason than to make sure satellites don’t crash into each other.
“The need is we have these services and capabilities that we have increased reliance on, and these thing are not guaranteed to work, nor are they guaranteed to be protected from any sort of hazard or threat,” Jah said.
“Space situational awareness is the knowledge required to support decision making processes related to trying to predict, avoid, deter, operate through, recover from, or attribute cause to the loss, disruption, or degradation of space services or capabilities,” he added.
Kubancik said he views the new contract as a way to help develop the capabilities even more.
“With the government stepping up in a big way to commercial data and services, we see a great opportunity to help enable a healthy and competitive market landscape,” Kubancik said.
“As small, low-cost satellites and large constellations proliferate, and new space investments accelerate, commercial SSA data and services are needed throughout the entire design, planning, and operations lifecycle,” he said. “This is not a military activity, it is an engineering- and operations-management activity.”
Greater involvement from the commercial sector could also “relieve pressure on government sensor and systems engineering programs and associated budgets,” Kubancik said.
SSA needs more investment, because many areas of knowledge or lacking, Jah said. For instance, there’s no definitive list of everything that contributes to human-made objects floating in orbit.
“We know what we launch, we know when things explode, sometimes we know when things collide,” he said. “But some of this debris might be just because old dead satellites start flaking pieces and pieces start breaking off. But we don’t know. We haven’t done that kind of study yet.”