WASHINGTON — With one commercial space traffic coordination pilot project successfully completed, the Office of Space Commerce is considering ways to do a similar project in the more challenging environment of low Earth orbit.
Speaking at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 8, Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce within NOAA, said the office had just completed a two-month project to test the ability to perform space situational awareness in medium and geostationary Earth orbits using only commercial data.
The office, working with the Defense Department, awarded contracts in December to COMSPOC Corp., ExoAnalytic Solutions, Kayhan Space, KBR, NorthStar Earth & Space Inc., Slingshot Aerospace and the Space Data Association for the pilot. It also used data from five contracts the office awarded in September for commercial space situational awareness (SSA) data.
DalBello stated that while the office was still analyzing the results of the pilot, it appeared to go well. “I’m highly confident that we will have done very well,” he said. “The initial results look really good.”
The goal, he noted, was to do at least as well as what is offered by the 18th Space Defense Squadron, which currently provides space traffic coordination services. “We wanted to do SSA in GEO with no government data and just answer the question, could we do it?” he said. “I think the answer will be yes.”
The office is now looking at options for doing a similar pilot program in LEO. That will be more challenging, he argued, given both the limited data available in LEO and the more congested environment there.
“The difference between GEO and LEO is the difference between living in the country and living in downtown D.C.,” he said. GEO is less crowded, with a smaller number of larger satellites, whereas LEO features many more objects in various orbits. “It’s just a dramatic difference.”
Another difference is the available data. “We don’t have the depth of coverage we need” in LEO, he said, with fewer commercial providers. “We’d like better resolution than we currently have in LEO.”
Those factors will weigh on any plans by the Office of Space Commerce to do a similar space traffic coordination commercial pilot in LEO. “I’m sure we will do something. Whether it will be a pilot like we did in GEO I’m not 100% sure, but we are going to be doing a focused investigation with the LEO players.”
DalBello also called for greater international coordination, giving as one example a formal relationship with the European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) partnership, which is building up an independent SSA capability in Europe. “It’s absolutely essential that there be an open dialogue on this kind of information.”
Those discussions are increasingly important as more capabilities emerge, with the Defense Department no longer the single source of SSA information. “We have a major task ahead of us to make sure we have a way to understand what other people are saying,” he said. “We are literally creating a Tower of Babel today, so the U.S. is trying to do the best we can to find a forward on this.”
He singled out China as one country that, for now, is not cooperating with the United States and others on SSA. “We have an environment today where the Chinese aren’t playing,” he said. “They’re a major space operator, but they’re not sharing in any meaningful way data on where they are or what their satellites are doing.”
“That wouldn’t work in air traffic control and it’s not going to work in space traffic control,” he added. “We need all responsible operators at the table.”
ORBITS Act reintroduced
As the Office of Space Commerce works on space traffic coordination, several senators have reintroduced a bill that would address related issues, including active debris removal.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) announced Feb. 16 that he had introduced the Orbital Sustainability, or ORBITS, Act. Joining him as co-sponsors were Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
The new ORBITS Act is similar to a previous version that Hickenlooper and others introduced last September and which passed the Senate in December by unanimous consent. However, the House did not take it up before Congress adjourned, requiring senators to reintroduce the bill in the new Congress.
The bill directs NASA to publish a list of the orbital debris objects “that pose the greatest immediate risk to the safety and sustainability of orbiting satellites and on-orbit activities” and authorizes NASA to establish a debris removal demonstration program. The bill would allow government agencies to procure commercial debris removal services, update existing debris mitigation standard practices and develop new practices for space traffic coordination.
“It’s time for major spring cleaning to protect our space operations from the dangerous threat of debris,” Hickenlooper said in the statement. He introduced the bill last year when he served as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, and reintroduced it even though he is not leading the subcommittee in the new Congress.
“Just last month, two Russian satellites came within 20 feet of colliding, which would have littered space with even more debris,” said Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, referring to a Jan. 27 incident identified by LeoLabs where the Cosmos 2361 spacecraft and an SL-8 rocket body came within an estimated six meters of each other. “This bill will jumpstart the technology development needed to remove the most dangerous junk before it knocks out a satellite – or worse, a NASA mission.”