WASHINGTON — The commercial satellite industry and space officials in the Pentagon are moving on separate but parallel tracks to institute guidelines designed to bring more transparency and predictability to on-orbit operations.

The need for guidelines and standards governing on-orbit operations and data sharing has been a major topic of discussion within the joint government-industry Commercial Satcom Mission Assurance Working Group, formed five years ago to improve communication between the U.S. Defense Department and commercial satellite operators.

The executive agent for space, Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne, and Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, chair the group, which includes key senior civilian and military satellite communications leaders. The group holds an annual meeting with commercial satellite industry chief executives.

The industrial effort is being spearheaded by satellite operator Intelsat of Washington and Bermuda, which organized a meeting of  satellite companies Feb. 25 to try and begin hammering out basic guidelines, or rules of the road, for space operations, according to Richard DalBello, vice president of government relations at Intelsat General.

“The goal of the discussions was to talk about the fundamentals – how do we fly satellites, how do we track debris and how do we exchange information,” DalBello said in a March 4 interview. One problem the companies identified during the meeting is that they do not have a common terminology for sharing basic data such as the position of satellites, he said.

One of the factors driving the discussions is increasing awareness that space is getting extremely crowded. For example, DalBello said, one company is  considering placing up to 10 satellites in a single geostationary orbital slot.  

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James Armor, a consultant and former director of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, said the discussions among commercial satellite operators are useful and timely. He said the military could benefit from the example of the commercial operators’ attempt to craft common terminology, noting that this is lacking among the various Pentagon organizations involved in space activity.

“Our primary interest is in increasing the clarity of inter-operator communications,” DalBello said. “An important, but secondary, objective is to improve our ability to communicate with governments.”

As of yet, no follow-up meetings have been scheduled, DalBello said.

Meanwhile, there is a push within the Defense Department to educate senior leaders about the need for guidelines to bring transparency and predictability to U.S. and allied space operations, according to a Pentagon source. China’s January 2007 anti-satellite test sparked interest in the idea and the Pentagon’s recent destruction by missile of a failed spy satellite helped demonstrate the benefits for a space power of communicating its actions and intentions to the world to lessen the likelihood of misunderstandings, the source said.

Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, told Congress Feb. 27 that the Pentagon indeed is considering development of space operating guidelines. The department “seeks to promote compliance with existing legal regimes, acceptance of international debris mitigation guidelines, and development of additional voluntary guidelines for safe and responsible space operations,” he said. 

A senior official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense praised both the industry and government efforts.

“If your main concern is commercial opportunities, this begins to explore paths towards greater economic viability of space,” this source said. “… And if your main concern is security, you begin to explore options for mutual security, protection and defense of assets in space.”

Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here, said a more rational, timely and open exchange of data among commercial satellite operators and the U.S. government could serve as a foundation for better orbital data sharing between the United States and other spacefaring governments – something that will become critical as space gets increasingly crowded.

“It is obvious that space situational awareness is critical to any strategy for keeping space assets safe, and in the past there has not been enough recognition of this, nor enough funding,” Hitchens said. “Hopefully, that is starting to change.”