Commerce Space Traffic Management
After a slow start, the Office of Space Commerce says it is now making good progress on a civil space traffic coordination system called TraCSS. Credit: SpaceNews illustration

WAILEA, Hawaii — After a slow start, the Commerce Department says it is making progress on establishing a civil space traffic coordination system that will rely on both commercial and government data.

During a panel discussion at the AMOS Conference here Sept. 21, Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, emphasized the progress the office has made on creating the Traffic Coordination System for Space (TraCSS) that will take over civil space safety responsibilities currently held by the Defense Department. TraCSS is slated to begin initial services in the fourth quarter of 2024.

Much of that has been focused on getting personnel and funding. “When I started, there was almost no staff,” said DalBello, who took over as director of the office in May 2022. The office has been slowly but steadily hiring and has a goal of 50 people by next year. Many of them will work in two TraCSS operations centers, the locations of which have not yet been determined.

That hiring is enabled by an increased budget: $70 million in fiscal year 2023, less than the $87 million requested but far more than $16 million it received in 2022. “We have made good use of that budget,” he argued.

That includes spending much of it on commercial services. DalBello said Sept. 22 that the office, which requested $88 million in fiscal year 2024, projects spending $17 million of that on commercial infrastructure and $41 million on commercial space situational awareness data, services and pathfinders to support TraCSS.

TraCSS, though, will rely extensively on government resources as well, particularly data from the Defense Department. “We could not be where we are without DOD and NASA,” he said, with NASA handling research and development activities linked to TraCSS.

A Space Force official on the panel pledged increased support for TraCSS. Barbara Golf, strategic advisor for space domain awareness, said the Space Force would provide more accurate catalog information to the Commerce Department to go into its database than what it currently makes publicly available through the Space-Track service.

“We are working to get the high-accuracy catalog released to the DOC, machine to machine, starting in the spring of next year, every four hours indefinitely,” she said. “They will have everything they need in order to be seeded for spaceflight safety. They can then augment with commercial data.”

Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations for the Space Force, said in a separate media briefing at the conference Sept. 20 that he was satisfied with the focus the Commerce Department was devoting to establishing TraCSS, in part because it has risen to the attention of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

“She talked very knowledgeably about it, which is very encouraging. That means it’s on her radar. It means she understands what resource outlays are going to be required,” he said. “I’m really encouraged mostly because of the leadership that she’s shown with taking on that mission. They’ve got money. They’re investing the money in the things that they should be.”

While the Office of Space Commerce has talked about having an initial version of TraCSS ready by late 2024, Saltzman said he was not rushing them to establish it. “We’ve got this covered. It’ll be about when they’re ready to take this on because it’s important,” he said. “I just know how tough it is, and mostly we’re going to have to continue to do it anyway for our own purposes.”

Having the Commerce Department taking over civil space safety activities dates back to Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 in 2018. Progress was initially slow because of a lack of funding and questions by some in Congress about whether Commerce was the best agency to host that capability.

The policy was a “canary in a coal mine,” said Diane Howard, director of commercial space policy on the National Space Council, during a keynote at the conference Sept. 20. It raised issues about funding and the roles of both government and the private sector, she said, issues that have expanded beyond space traffic coordination.

“I think some of those early days of SPD-3 being an unfunded mandate forced a lot of those early conversations about how to make that transition, to be more creative,” she said. “Some of that is baked into the conops now.”

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 with honors in geophysics and planetary science...