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Growth of SSA systems could create problems for satellite operators

While the incoming administration has offered no hints of its views on the subject, there is nothing that would stop it from moving civil space traffic management to the FAA or authorizing the Commerce Department to perform STM, making it easy for the White House to change its mind. Credit: SpaceNews illustration

WASHINGTON — The growth of space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities worldwide, intended to better track satellites and debris in orbit, could instead create confusion for satellite operators, one official warned.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Global Network on Sustainability in Space (GNOSIS) Nov. 30, Richard DalBello, director of the U.S. Office of Space Commerce, said one issue he is watching is how emerging SSA systems elsewhere should cooperate on exchanging data and predictions of potential collisions.

“We have an issue of how are we managing proliferating SSA systems,” he said. A prime example of that is the European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST) system, which he said is planning to start offering collision avoidance services to third parties in January.

“We will have some common data, but they will also be operating on unique sensors. Sensors are not always in alignment and the math doesn’t aways agree on SSA calculations,” he said. That creates a scenario where, for example, one operator gets a warning of a collision with another satellite based on data from one system, while the operator of the other satellite, using another SSA system, concludes there is no risk of a collision.

“The question is, is there any effort to align those solutions, and do we care?” DalBello said. “If I feel like there’s a conjunction and I’m only using the U.S. system, and somebody else disagrees because they’re using another system, it’s not immediately clear to me how we resolve that today.”

There is some degree of data exchange among SSA systems, including an agreement between the Office of Space Commerce and EU SST in October to conduct a data sharing study. DalBello said one person in his office, seconded from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was working on SSA data standards to ensure systems were interoperable.

Standards alone, though, are not sufficient, he argued. “You can understand each other in the same language, but if your sensors are out of alignment, you may not be able to communicate effectively.”

He added he was a “little disappointed” that his EU SST counterparts informed him at a recent meeting that they would not buy commercial SSA data from U.S. providers. He said the Office of Space Commerce had no formal policy regarding buying data from international providers. “Overall, we will benefit by some kind of open process.”

At another event, some officials called for some kind of international space traffic management (STM) regime to coordinate activities, saying that voluntary cooperation was no longer sufficient.

“We need urgently a space traffic management system,” said Miguel Belló Mora, commissioner for aerospace in Spain’s Ministry for Science and Innovation, during the CompTIA Global Space Summit here Dec. 2. “Just as we have air traffic management, we need space traffic management.”

Without a coordinated STM system, he said he feared there would be a runaway growth of orbital debris, commonly called the Kessler Syndrome, that could render some orbits unusable.

He said he expected Spain to take action on the issue next year as it holds the presidency of the European Union. “Spain is willing to put space traffic management as priority number one of Europe next year,” he said, including discussing it at a European space summit next fall that non-European nations would also be encouraged to attend. “We would like to call on not only European but also world leaders to take a step forward towards space traffic management, because we have to act and we have to act now.”

Another panelist said just getting several major countries to cooperate on STM would be beneficial. “If just a few countries agree, that would help a lot,” said Ole Morton Olsen, director of business development and innovation at the Norwegian Space Agency.

That includes widespread adoption of national regulations addressing space sustainability, such as a recent order by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that requires low Earth orbit satellites to deorbit no more than five years after the end of their mission, rather than the 25-year guideline previously used. “The U.S. is in some ways the leader, so a lot of countries follow the U.S.,” he said. “I think most other countries will follow, at least in the Western part of the world.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree...