European countries are increasingly investing into space situational awareness assets. Germany's GESTRA radar is expected to start operating in 2018. Credit: Fraunhofer FHR

LONDON — Maintaining safety of space operations in the increasingly congested and contested space environment will require a paradigm shift in space situational awareness, including increased collaboration and active space traffic management.

Speaking at the Military Space Situational Awareness Conference, which took place here April 26- 27, Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of space programs within the office of the U.S. Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, said the increasing number of players in the space domain  — both governmental and commercial — means that maintaining order in Earth orbit will be increasingly difficult and will require new approaches to prevent space debris collisions, as well as intentional attacks.

“We are looking beyond mere positional and tracking data to support the emerging need for predictive space situational awareness, threat assessment and enhanced command and control,” Teague said. “To do that, we would require advanced architecture and network of complementary systems and capabilities to give us a much-improved operational understanding and command and control capabilities for our authorities to take timely and appropriate actions.”

The Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) tracks and catalogues artificial objects in space and issues conjunction warnings to satellite operators.

However, according to Teague, the Air Force, which will activate its new Space Fence radar in early 2019, might in the future hand over some of its responsibilities to another entity.

“We are looking to get away from these space traffic management functions,” Teague said. “From U.S. government perspective, we are looking at which organization should handle this space management de-confliction activity and for us to really worry about our own systems and capabilities.”

Teague also called for standards to be established that would enable merging data from multiple sources including individual countries as well as commercial and civilian providers.

The need for an active space traffic management system similar to that of modern air traffic control was mentioned by other delegates, as well as the need for a more open access to data.

“Today, you have no idea if there are two objects in conjunction [and] what actually the two spacecraft operators are doing,” said Allen Antrobus, a space security consultant who served as the conference chair.

“I think that needs to be more interactive, especially if we are going to have mega-constellations, we need to understand what is happening.”

Antrobus agreed that space surveillance and tracking in the future might need to move away from being the preserve of the military towards a solution centered on civilian space activities.

“I think the same will happen with space traffic what happened to air traffic that gradually became too big for the military and had to become a civil function,” said Antrobus. “The environment is changing fast and some of the rules and regulations that were made almost 60 years ago no longer apply.”

However, some noted that reconciling the different requirements of military and civil spacecraft operators might be challenging.

In Europe, namely, the idea of a dual-use space situational awareness system in development by the European Space Agency was abandoned in favor of the European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking initiative that encourages armed forces of individual member states to develop their own capabilities.

“The European direction is not clear at the moment,” said Thomas Schildknecht, vice director of the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern, the chair of ESA’s Space Situational Awareness Advisory Group and member of the Swiss delegation to the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

“We had the ESA SSA program, which was about the design and architecture for one common European system, which would have been operated by some other European entity, similar to Eumetsat. But that has been abandoned,” Schildknecht said. “ESA is now focusing on developing new technology, while we have the EU [Space Surveillance and Tracking] initiative, which for the time being is not really designing a common system but rather individual services.”

Schildknecht acknowledged that individual European member states are making progress, investing into space situational awareness infrastructure but called for a more systematic approach.

“We see countries like Spain, which five years ago started at really the point zero, developing their radar systems — Germany is building its GESTRA radar, France has its capabilities — but I am a bit skeptical whether this all is coming together to create a single system,” Schildknecht said.

He also voiced concerns whether the military-centered approach will provide the openness to data sharing that civilian spacecraft operators are calling for.

“The military doesn’t wasn’t to share classified data, they would offer you a service, they will warn you if one of these objects is coming towards your spacecraft but that’s the same situation we have right now with JSpOC.”

Schildknecht said that more effort should be made in order to create a comprehensive catalog of space objects that would merge not only data acquired by individual national states but also those gathered by commercial entities such as satellite operators or emerging companies moving into the space situational awareness field.

“There is no way around because otherwise we will not have the quality that we would need in the future with the amount of objects that we have,” Schildknecht said.

Tereza Pultarova is a London-based science and technology journalist and video producer, covering European space developments for SpaceNews. A native of the Czech Republic, she has a bachelors degree in journalism from the Charles University,...