LeoLabs new radar in Midland, Texas, came on line in February 2017. Credit: LeoLabs

WASHINGTON — The Departments of Commerce and Defense have signed an agreement to cooperate on transferring responsibility for civil and commercial space traffic management.

Don Graves, deputy secretary of commerce, announced the memorandum of agreement, or MOA, between his department and the Pentagon during a Sept. 9 meeting of the National Space Council at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The agreement “will drive our mutual work,” he said. “That’s really going to allow us to have not just a basic level of space traffic awareness, but it will also allow us to drive the research, the innovation, we all know we need to maximize the space environment for future generations.”

The agreement, the Commerce Department said in a statement, defines how the two departments will work together to implement provisions of Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 in 2018 that directed commerce to provide space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM) services, such as conjunction warnings, currently provided by the U.S. military. The statement didn’t elaborate on the specific provisions of the agreement.

“Establishing and maintaining coordinated SSA and STM technology, data, and services for civil and commercial entities is the foundation of the Department of Commerce’s efforts to ensure the continued safe and sustainable growth of the commercial space industry,” Rick Spinrad, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in the statement. NOAA hosts the Office of Space Commerce, which is tasked with building up a civil STM capability.

“We are pleased to partner with DoC on this effort and look to broaden our relationship with industry, allies, and partners to help achieve the objectives of SPD-3,” said John Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, in the statement. Plumb signed the agreement for the Defense Department along with officials from the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command.

“This MOA is a necessary first step in a civil authority conducting tracking and notification of space objects,” said Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, in a statement.

A key part of the Commerce Department’s effort to create a civil STM capability is the development of an open architecture data repository that will combine SSA data provided by the U.S. military with data from commercial and international sources. As a part of that effort, the Office of Space Commerce issued a request for proposals in July for commercial SSA data that would be used in pilot programs.

Graves announced at the Space Council meeting that the department has made its first data buys under that effort. Neither he nor the office immediately disclosed the companies selected or the value of the awards, but said the data would cover both low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit.

One company that did receive a contract was LeoLabs, which operates a worldwide network of radars to track objects in low Earth orbit. The company said it will provide real-time and archived data on a subset of objects it tracks in orbit for use by the Office of Space Commerce in evaluating prototype STM systems.

“The traffic in LEO is growing exponentially, driven by commercial innovation and economic opportunity,” said Dan Ceperley, chief executive of LeoLabs, in a statement. “LeoLabs was founded to drive innovation in space traffic management, therefore we look forward to working with the U.S. government on this effort to ensure the continued success of the space industry.”

Graves said at the council meeting that, later this fall, the Office of Space Commerce will conduct an “all-commercial” pilot of an STM system. “It will seek to replicate a portion of the DoD’s basic safety services using only commercial data and analytical services.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...