Editorial: Leadership in Action

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Three of the most recognizable names in satellite telecommunications have joined in taking a very important step toward bringing order to an orbital environment that grows more chaotic by the year.

The world’s two largest fixed satellite services operators, Intelsat and SES, along with the most established mobile satellite services provider, Inmarsat, are seeking bids to create a database containing the orbital locations and certain technical specifications of commercial spacecraft. The idea is to reduce the chances of on-orbit collisions while cutting down on incidences of inadvertent frequency interference that erode the satellite industry’s revenue and reputation.

Satellite operators have been discussing the idea of a data center for at least the past year; now it actually seems to be happening. This is great news for both the industry and its customer base. The rest of the world’s satellite operators — large and small; government affiliated and exclusively privately owned — should waste no time in climbing aboard.

Congestion in Earth orbit, a long recognized problem, continues to grow worse as more satellites are launched and, as an inevitable consequence, more orbital debris is created. The on-orbit collision that destroyed an active Iridium satellite early this year focused worldwide attention on the issue. But well before that incident, operators were complaining about a lack of access to the highly accurate orbital-location data they need to safely maneuver their satellites.

Satellite frequency interference also is on the rise, due in large part to the widespread adoption of the technology. Much of the interference is caused by improperly installed or poorly maintained ground antennas. Organizations such as the Global VSAT Forum and Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group have worked hard to bring more visibility to the issue, but have encountered resistance among their own constituency: Satellite operators are often reluctant to acknowledge interference problems for fear of sowing doubts about service reliability.

Similarly, satellite operators are reticent about sharing data on the exact location and configuration of their spacecraft for competitive reasons, although they have done so through informal channels. Satellite location data are available from the U.S. Department of Defense, which operates the world’s most sophisticated space surveillance network, but the most readily accessible information — the so-called two-line element sets — often is not accurate enough to support maneuvers in the crowded geostationary-orbit arc.

The Space Data Association, founded by Intelsat, Inmarsat and SES, aims to make highly accurate orbital-location data voluntarily provided by the operators available to support such maneuvers, which range from routine station keeping to moving to a completely different orbital slot. As envisioned, the association’s Space Data Center also would act as a clearinghouse for data on commercial satellite power levels and beam configurations, which could help services in overlapping or adjacent geographic areas coexist.

That the group is now soliciting bids from contractors interested in setting up the data center attests to the seriousness of the initiative.

For all their size and influence, however, Intelsat, SES and Inmarsat — which operate some 100 satellites combined — cannot do this by themselves. The world’s other fixed-satellite services companies alone account for some 150 spacecraft in geostationary orbit, for example. Without the cooperation of these operators, who would have to constantly submit updated data on their spacecraft, the center’s utility will be severely limited. Moreover, three companies should not be expected to foot the entire bill for the data center, which would be based on the Isle of Man with backup facilities located elsewhere.

According to one Space Data Association member, five other satellite operators have expressed interest in joining the group. That’s encouraging, but it’s only a start. Those who remain reluctant for competitive reasons should consider that the group’s founders, Intelsat and SES in particular, compete head to head in many if not most regions of the world. If they can find a way to put proprietary concerns aside, not only for their own good but for the benefit of the industry at large, others should be able to find a way.

Intelsat, SES and Inmarsat are to be commended for taking the initiative to address the orbital congestion problem. The Space Data Association has provided an opportunity for the industry to make Earth orbit a safer place in which to operate. If the planned data center develops as a resource to the extent that spacefaring governments conclude it’s in their interest to participate in some way, the benefits will only multiply.