The U.S. Air Force’s denial late last year of orbital surveillance data Intelsat needed to safely move one of its satellites has not been explained and hopefully will not be repeated. The surveillance data, after all, is vital information that allows commercial and other non-U.S. government satellite owners to avoid collisions and near misses in the increasingly crowded Earth-orbit environment.
Since 2004 the Air Force, which operates the world’s most capable space surveillance network, has been sharing such data under a congressionally established pilot program known as Commercial and Foreign Entities (CFE). But on Nov. 12, the Air Force-led Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) refused Intelsat’s request for detailed data to support a planned maneuver of the company’s IS-709 satellite. Intelsat’s analysis indicated a likelihood of an orbital conjunction – in layman’s terms, a too-close-for-comfort approach – between IS-709 and Russia’s Raduga 1-7 spacecraft. All JSPOC was willing to provide was a reassurance, without supporting details, that a conjunction was unlikely. According to a letter from Intelsat Chief Executive David McGlade to senior Air Force officers including Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, the company was left to decide for itself whether it was safe to go through with the maneuver.
Gen. Kehler did write back – about a month later – to reiterate the Air Force’s commitment to the CFE program. A Dec. 15 press release issued by the Air Force carried a similar message and further noted that Air Force Space Command is working to transition the CFE pilot program to a “permanent operational” program and to develop more advanced services.
So far the Air Force appears to be keeping its word: Intelsat has received full cooperation in more recent requests for orbital surveillance data support. This obviously is encouraging, even if the Air Force’s reasons for denying the November data request remain a mystery.
To be fair, satellite operators, both commercial and government, owe a lot to the Air Force, which despite some hiccups here and there has been a solid benefactor to a broad spectrum of space activity worldwide. Moreover, the service has a right and an obligation to withhold certain information whose disclosure could harm national security interests. But the bar for withholding surveillance data should be set high, and it would be helpful if the Air Force were more communicative: If it cannot fulfill a data request, it should at least provide some explanation of its reasoning so that operators aren’t left guessing about its policy in this regard.
Meanwhile, Congress needs to reauthorize CFE as a permanent and fully funded program before the current CFE legislation expires at the end of September. As Earth orbit becomes more cluttered with operational satellites and debris, this program is needed now more than ever.
Additionally, as other countries field increasingly capable orbital surveillance capabilities – Russia, China, France and Germany come to mind – they too should develop mechanisms for providing tracking data to the global space community. Such efforts, along with an initiative among commercial satellite operators to set up a data center for sharing information traditionally deemed competition sensitive, will help make space a safer operating environment for all concerned.