Commerce Department moves ahead on space traffic management work despite limited budget

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WASHINGTON — The head of the Commerce Department office with the mandate, but not the money, for civil space traffic management says he hopes the recent near-miss involving two satellites will help provide more attention to the issue.

In an on-stage interview at the 23rd Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Jan. 30, Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, says he will press ahead with planning to eventually take over the civil space traffic management (STM) responsibilities currently held by the Defense Department despite receiving only a fraction of his requested budget in fiscal year 2020.

O’Connell’s appearance came less than 24 hours after two defunct satellites nearly collided in low Earth orbit. LeoLabs, a company that operates a network of ground-based radars to track objects in low Earth orbit, predicted at one point a 1-in-20 chance that the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and the Gravity Gradient Stabilization Experiment (GGSE) 4 satellite would collide in LEO. Observations by LeoLabs and the Defense Department after the predicted conjunction at 6:39 p.m. Eastern Jan. 29 confirmed both satellites were intact.

It was, however, a very close call. LeoLabs, in a Jan. 31 statement, said the two spacecraft had a predicted miss distance of 18 meters. “Taking into account the objects’ unique sizes and dimensions, it is reasonable to estimate that these satellites may have come within just a few meters of actually hitting each other,” the company concluded.

That close approach, while unusual given the size and relative velocities of the spacecraft involved, is not unique given the growing population of active satellites and debris. “We had a very close approach last night,” O’Connell said. “I think the silver lining in that story is that people are starting to realize that these near-misses are taking place much more frequently. They are not a once-in-a-year occurrence.”

Under the administration’s Space Policy Directive 3 in June 2018, the Commerce Department will take over civil STM work, including providing collision warnings to satellite operators. The department, through the Office of Space Traffic Management, has slowly started to work on planning for that effort.

That work has been hampered by a lack of funding. The Commerce Department, in its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, proposed to merge the Office of Space Commerce with the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office. The two offices each received $1.8 million in 2019 but the department sought $10 million for the combined office, with much of the additional funding going to STM planning.

The final fiscal year 2020 spending bill, though, rejected the combination and provided only $500,000 in additional funding for the Office of Space Commerce. Moreover, the bill directed the office to use that additional $500,000 for an independent study by the National Academy of Public Administration on which organization should have civil STM responsibilities and related funding and regulatory issues.

O’Connell said his office will continue STM planning with its limited budget. “It’s no secret that we did not get the budget that we requested for 2020,” he said. “At the macro level for this year, we’ll continue to do a lot of good work within the interagency, with our government colleagues, and we’ll be able to do some work with our allies.” That’s included ongoing discussions with NASA and with Air Force officials. His office, he added, will also be at the February meeting of the scientific and technical subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna.

Work with the private sector, though, will be affected. “What we’re less able to do is spend money in the market,” he said, by testing the capabilities of potential commercial data and analysis providers. However, he said his office will still get insights into commercial STM capabilities through partnerships those companies have with other agencies.

Any effective STM system, he said, will have to leverage the “incredible innovation” in the commercial sector, along with the development of norms and best practices and the creation of a “state-of-the-art” information system that combined the existing Defense Department catalog with additional data and improved analysis and warning systems from companies.

O’Connell said he’s been encouraged by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to continue pursuing civil STM work, noting that Ross discussed the topic at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. “I think you all know his enthusiasm for space,” he said of Ross. “His message to me was, ‘Don’t slow down, Kevin. Do as much as you possibly can.’”