Commerce Department hopes study will free up funding for space traffic management work

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WASHINGTON — Two years after a space policy directive gave it responsibility for space traffic management, the Commerce Department says it is making progress on implementing that policy as it continues to seek additional funding from Congress.

On June 18, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross visited the headquarters of Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI) outside of Philadelphia for a briefing on its commercial space traffic management (STM) efforts. AGI operates the Commercial Space Operations Center, which collects space situational awareness data to provide satellite operators with warnings of potential close approaches, or conjunctions, between objects in orbit.

Ross said he was impressed with AGI’s services. “What they seem to have been able to accomplish is much more precise of tracking of objects,” he said in a June 19 interview with SpaceNews. “They are able to do it more quickly and more accurately than even Vandenberg,” the Air Force base that hosts the Combined Space Operations Center.

Improved accuracy is vital, he noted, to reduce the number of false alarms about potential conjunctions that satellite operators get. “The more false warnings that someone gets, the less likely they are to actually implement the next warning by moving the satellite,” he said.

Ross’ visit to AGI took place on the second anniversary of President Donald Trump’s signing of Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3, which assigned the Commerce Department the mission of providing civil STM services. The timing, he said, was a coincidence, since it was part of a series of meetings he had in Pennsylvania that day to discuss the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Ross said companies like AGI, as well as ExoAnalytic Solutions and LeoLabs, which track satellites with optical telescopes or radars, play a key role in the Commerce Department’s implementation of SPD-3. The department has plans to establish what it calls an “open architecture data repository” that would combine space situational awareness data from both government and commercial sources, and in turn support more accurate notifications of potential conjunctions.

“The whole idea of the open architecture is to have as many sources as you can, interpolating among them, and providing the complex output on a very realtime, very highly reliable basis,” he said, saying AGI’s platform “fits 100%” with that approach.

Progress on that data architecture and other elements of SPD-3, though, have been slowed by a lack of funding. The department sought to combine the Office of Space Commerce, responsible for STM, with NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) office in its 2020 budget proposal, requesting $10 million for the combined office. Congress rejected that measure, providing $1.8 million for CRSRA and $2.3 million for the Office of Space Commerce.

The department, in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal in February, again sought to combine the two offices and requested $15 million. Most of the additional funding will go to implementing SPD-3, the department said in its budget justification.

One reason Congress failed to provide the additional funding last year was a belief by some appropriators that STM belonged to the Federal Aviation Administration, within the Department of Transportation. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation had been working for several years on STM concepts before SPD-3 assigned that responsibility to Commerce.

Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, told a meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board June 9 that he believed the Office of Space Commerce got caught up in other political issues involving the Commerce Department.

“There are other Commerce Department issues that are controversial with members of Senate and House appropriators,” he said, which he did not elaborate on at the meeting. “We’re dealing with other political cross-connections that have prevented that from moving out.”

The 2020 appropriations bill required the Commerce Department to funding a study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to examine what organization was best suited to carry out civil space traffic management. “Some Senate staff, who were convinced that Transportation was really the best place and didn’t agree with SPD-3, wanted to have another study to look at it,” Pace said of that study.

Ross said in the interview that he expects the NAPA study to be done in the next two months. “We’re hopeful that it will help Congress to clarify the direction going forward, and we’re quite optimistic that, as a result, we’ll get the budgetary relief we need in order to really fulfill the mission,” he said.

If the NAPA study is favorable to Commerce, and Congress provides the funding, Ross said the department will be ready to move ahead quickly. “We’re operating on the thesis that, ultimately, we will get the funding and we want to have the minimum delay from the time we get the funding until the time when we can be fully operational with the open architecture platform,” he said.

He declined to give a specific date when that system will be fully operational, which he said will depend in part on cooperation with other agencies. “We’re doing what we can around the margins to minimize the time lag, but it’s hard to put an exact time,” he said. “We will go fast forward as soon as we get the budgetary relief.”