Q&A with the Space Data Association’s Mark Rawlins

by

Profile | Mark Rawlins
Chairman, Space Data Association


For the Space Data Association, strength lies in numbers — the more satellite operators join the international data-sharing cooperative, the more valuable its collision-avoidance and interference-mitigation services become.

One of the not-for-profit organization’s challenges is persuading prospective recruits to submit the proprietary satellite-location and other technical data that are necessary to provide these services to members who often are direct competitors. Nonetheless, the SDA, founded in 2009 by satellite operators Inmarsat, Intelsat and SES, now boasts more than 25 participating companies and agencies including NASA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Eumetsat. The participants include full-fledged, dues-paying members and others that provide data.

The information is warehoused on a confidential basis at the Space Data Center on the Isle of Man. Orbit-modeling software provider AGI serves as technical adviser and manages the data center under a contract that recently was renewed for another five years.

SDA Chairman Mark Rawlins, who in his regular job is director of communication systems operations at Eutelsat, said the organization is working hard to improve and automate its process for detecting and locating sources of radiofrequency interference, enabling quick resolution of incidents that are part of what everyone agrees is a growing problem. The SDA is testing an approach that uses different members’ satellites to help pinpoint offending transmitters, and hopes this service, to be available by the end of the year, will attract more companies, Rawlins says.

The SDA last year reached a data sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the Pentagon’s space-traffic management center, known as the Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC. In the past, SDA officials have complained that Strategic Command has been a less-than-eager partner, declining, for example, the organization’s offer to provide it with a machine that would draw member data directly into the JSpOC.

Rawlins spoke recently with SpaceNews Editor Warren Ferster.


You’ve had challenges signing new members, in part because of their concerns about sharing data with possible competitors. Is it getting any easier?

People are comfortable that the system is working, and I think the fact that SES, Eutelsat and Intelsat, who are the biggest three operators, have been able to work together on this has been quite key. We have a good geographical spread of members. There is one geographical area where we are weaker and that’s in Asia.

Why do you suppose that is?

We are in dialogue with them. One thing they have indicated is that for them it’s very important on the radio frequency interference side. They have indicated that once the service of geo-localization and radio frequency interference functions start coming online then they’re going to be very, very interested in membership.

Your list of SDA members and participants includes imaging startups Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging. How are you doing with some of the other entrepreneurial companies that have sprung up in the past few years with plans to launch large satellite constellations?

We’re looking at how to accommodate the new players. So Google, the cubesat operators, how can we bring them on? We’re looking at ways of being able to engage with them because the current membership structure is not set up for these players.

Can you elaborate?

There are two issues. The cubesats often don’t have any maneuvering capability, so if there’s going to be a collision warning, it’s information only because they can’t actually do anything about it. They also operate tens or hundreds of satellites. So we’re looking at ways of bringing them onboard, getting them involved and seeing how the Space Data Association can serve them as members, as part of the community as well.

Cubesat operators tend not to have a lot of money to spend on SDA membership fees.

This is the core of the discussion.

What about the mega-constellations proposed by the likes of OneWeb and SpaceX, the latter of which says it wants to deploy some 4,000 satellites?

Four thousand objects in space is an information resource that is important to the community. So how we can ingest that data is very, very important to us. I’m having conversations with people to better understand how we can work with them and what they would be willing to do.

Are membership fees structured on a sliding scale such that the cost per satellite drops as the number of satellites in a company’s constellation rises?

It’s a sliding scale.

What’s the status of your efforts to bring Russian and Chinese satellite operators onboard?

There are a number of Russian entities we are in discussions with. These things are very important to the community. We haven’t had any meaningful discussions on the Chinese side yet, but the Space Data Association is deliberately open to participation by all. We try to promote this side to make sure all members of the community are aware that it’s available.

Are you actively pursuing discussions with Chinese operators?

At the moment, no. If they come knocking on the door we will talk to them.

How about various governments around the world?

The ideal objective would be to have everybody onboard. We recognize some parts of the community are never going to be able to share their data and we’re looking at solutions where we can provide them with our information in a secure way and they can compare their data with ours. So we still protect our assets without having to know what their assets are doing. It doesn’t matter to us really if we get hit by a piece of debris or a clandestine government satellite. The effect is the same.

You’ve signed a cooperative accord with U.S. Strategic Command. Can you give me any details?

We’re not in a position yet to provide further details. We have a very strong relationship with these people; we’re in constant communication with them. We’re also having a dialogue with other governments.

The SDA in the past has raised concerns about Strategic Command’s reluctance to work more closely together. How would you characterize the relationship today?

The working relationship has become much better. We’ve got the best operator data for our participants — we go through this vetting process so we know that our operator data is authoritative. So I think the dialogue has become more cordial and productive.

A couple of years ago the SDA complained about Strategic Command’s reluctance to ingest your data.

I think the Space Data Association was hopeful in saying, “We’ve got better operator information than JSpOC,” and that sort of ruffled some feathers. I think it served the purpose for JSpOC and they were able to invest and change the way they do things so that in the future they can routinely ingest operator data at scale.

Do you now have an arrangement to house one of your data machines at the JSpOC?

There isn’t at the moment, though that offer remains open. The progress that we’re making is related to agreements to put into place a robust exchange of data.

From your perspective, have the orbital data — in particular conjunction assessments — from the JSpOC become more accurate and useful?

I think there’s more work to do together. The SDA is still the best and we think it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

You mentioned that you’re trying to forge partnerships with other governments that have space surveillance assets, such as France and Germany. Is there anything to report there?

One of the things we would like to do is try and get some better data. If we could establish — and this is something I would like to do over the next two years I’ve got as chairman of the SDA — and explore opportunities from a European perspective, that is something we would be interested in doing. And it goes perfectly in line with our quest for more and all data.

The SDA recently renewed its contract with AGI to manage the Space Data Center. Separately, AGI has stood up a service called Comspoc to provide space traffic management services to paying customers. Is there a role for Comspoc in supporting the Space Data Center?

The Comspoc for us is another potential source of information. It’s similar in the core function to the Space Data Center but rather than operator data it relies on the AGI observational network and the data it obtains from that.

But you’re not actively using the Comspoc service?

We work very closely with AGI and are developing the further functions with the radio frequency interference with them. The possibility of using the Comspoc becomes a commercial issue, so if it’s commercially convenient to SDA then there’ll be a relationship. We try to keep the costs down for the system. We have had discussions in the past with other data suppliers — ISON being one in the past — and the costs were prohibitive.

You’re referring to the Russian-operated International Scientific Optical Network. Can you elaborate on your discussions with them?

The offers that they made were well in excess of what we were considering reasonable. So we were already getting debris information from JSpOC; this is free. To establish relationships with other European providers, governments, there’s a good possibility this could be a very-low-cost or free sort of service. So this is what we would explore first. AGI is a commercial entity — it’s got to pay its bills. There’s a lot of development on the observation side. A lot of people are looking into it. Governments too. Is it going to be a free information network? If the governments compile the information for free, which they may or may not have an interest to do, then why would we pay for it? The only reason we’d pay for it was if there was a higher quality to it.

AGI officials say the Comspoc data are in many cases more accurate than what’s available from any government system.

Everybody says that their data is best.