NASA recently agreed to use the services of the Space Data Association (SDA), an international cooperative among commercial satellite firms created to share information on spacecraft positions and broadcast frequencies to ensure smoother operations for all. To appreciate the significance of the agreement, consider it this way: NASA, the big government agency that has launched hundreds of space missions of all types, sent astronauts to the Moon and back, operates the international space station and recently began driving a 1-ton, nuclear-powered rover on the surface of Mars, is going to use the services of a nonprofit group whose members did not even exist when the agency was created.
This is the second such agreement the SDA, established in 2009, has signed with a U.S. government space agency. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has operated weather satellites in both polar and geostationary orbit since the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, inked a similar data-usage deal this past spring.
Taken together, the agreements signify the arrival of the SDA — and by extension the commercial satellite industry — as an important player in monitoring the increasingly congested orbital environment. It is part of a trend that has seen the private sector take increased responsibility for keeping space safe for commerce. This benefits governments as well as industry — the more watchful eyes focused on Earth orbit for safety purposes, the better for everybody who operates there.
Conspicuously absent from SDA’s initial list of government partners is the U.S. Defense Department, which operates the world’s most sophisticated space surveillance network and thus has assumed the unofficial role of international conservator of the orbital environment. Not only do commercial satellite operators rely on the U.S. Air Force-led Joint Space Operations Center (Jspoc) for satellite- and debris-location data, so do other governments including an ascendant China, whose growing military power and space presence are viewed by many as a threat to the United States and its allies.
The Air Force and SDA, based in the Isle of Man, have had an ongoing dialog but no formal partnerships have been announced. Earlier this year the nonprofit organization said it had offered to help the Jspoc better predict close approaches, or conjunctions, between its members’ satellites and other orbital objects. The Jspoc regularly provides conjunction assessments to commercial operators, but these alerts would be more accurate if the service had the most up-to-date information on the whereabouts of industry spacecraft. The SDA is trying to facilitate that by offering a service that would enable the Jspoc to ingest this information automatically.
To date, U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees Jspoc, has yet to take the SDA up on its offer for reasons that include security concerns. Prominent among them is that opening Jspoc’s computer systems to outside data could render some of the nation’s most critical defense capabilities vulnerable to cyber hackers looking to create mischief, mayhem or worse.
Given the frequency with which U.S. defense networks are being targeted by cyber attacks these days, these concerns are fully justified — the SDA and its members need to be patient as Jspoc works to better understand the issues. But defense officials have acknowledged a cultural barrier as well: The national security community by its very nature is wary and insular.
The SDA and the Air Force should continue exploring ways to work more closely together: As part of its planned Jspoc Mission System upgrade program, for example, the Air Force should examine low-risk options for integrating commercially provided orbital data and consider including that capability as an option on the contract. The SDA, meanwhile, should view its data-sharing arrangements with the two primary U.S. civil space agencies as an opportunity to familiarize itself with government operations and security requirements and to demonstrate to the Pentagon that it can provide invaluable services while mitigating the associated risk. It will take effort, to be sure, but both sides have too much to offer for it to not be worth it.