Office of Space Commerce on a “listening tour” for civil space traffic management

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WASHINGTON — The new head of the Office of Space Commerce says he’s talking with industry on how his office can best take over civil space traffic management while also potentially taking on more regulatory responsibilities.

Speaking June 22 at the Fourth Summit for Space Sustainability by the Secure World Foundation and the U.K. Space Agency, Richard DalBello said he’s been on a “listening tour” with satellite operators and commercial space situational awareness data providers since taking over as director of the Office of Space Commerce last month.

That office is charged with implementing Space Policy Directive 3, a four-year-old policy that directs the Commerce Department to take over civil space traffic management responsibilities (STM) currently handled by the Defense Department. That includes providing warnings to satellite operators of potential close approaches between their satellites and other space objects.

“The question is, what exactly is it that we’re going to do?” he said in his remarks. In conversations with satellite operators, he said he’s asked them what basic services they expect to see once his office takes cover civil STM responsibilities. While operators initially say they want to see his office continue what the Defense Department currently provides, they also acknowledge that they’re not satisfied with those services.

“Once you prompt them — the people fly satellites for a living and who live this every day — it’s easy to get a list out of them” of improved services, he said. That list features rapid cataloging of satellites after launch, faster screening of potential conjunctions and ability by the government to easily accept position data from satellite operators to improve the accuracy of satellite catalogs.

The growing amount of satellites and debris, and increased commercial activities in low Earth orbit in particular, also drive the need for improved STM services, he said. “We need to go to the next level.”

He said that later this summer and this fall, the Office of Space Commerce will move ahead on efforts such as buying data and contracting for “essential commercial services” to support that effort, with the goal of creation of an open architecture data repository of SSA data. “All of this is targeted to an initial operational capability in 2024,” he said.

DalBello said that his vision for the office is that it will “first and foremost execute on the task of implementing an open architecture data repository that provides basic services to commercial, civil and international entities for free.” He also sees the office being an advocate and “troubleshooter” for the space industry generally and the SSA industry specifically.

That work extends to international cooperation on STM issues. He said he will be meeting with European Union officials next week where STM will be on the agenda. “It’s the beginning of an important multiyear dialogue,” he said. “It’s not something that just the U.S. can do. This is something that requires the engagement of all nations.”

The Office of Space Commerce also has a regulatory responsibility for commercial remote sensing after the office was combined with a separate Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office. The role could expand, he said, to regulate other commercial space activities.

Of particular interest is the responsibility for authorization and continuing supervision for commercial space activities required by Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty. That is handled in the U.S. by a patchwork of agencies for launch, communications and remote sensing, an approach that leaves gaps for new industries and services.

DalBello said his office has been in discussions with the White House and Congress about whether it should take on those oversight responsibilities to fill those gaps. “We are in open dialogue with the administration and with the Hill about whether we should fill that gap, what’s the most appropriate way to fill that gap that we all see in the authorities in the U.S.,” he said. “I see us playing a larger role in that space.”

That could eventually include oversight of commercial space stations and, with it, human safety in space. “That’s not something that is on our agenda today or, quite frankly, even next year, but it could eventually be,” he said. If that happens, he said he expects other organizations, like NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, to assist with such oversight. “If we were tasked with that authority, I think we would have a lot of support and assistance in the interagency community.”