WASHINGTON — U.S. military space watchers and space traffic managers face a daunting workload due to increasing congestion and threats in orbit. The Space Force is investing in new sensors and technologies to better characterize objects in orbit, but is not taking full advantage of commercially available data and services, says a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

GAO in a congressionally mandated report released April 24  said DoD lacks a consistent process to evaluate commercial data and tools for space situational awareness. The Space Force has a Unified Data Library (UDL) — a cloud-based data repository — to consolidate commercial and U.S. government SSA data, but many of the military’s systems used to track space objects are not compatible with data in the UDL, the report said. 

“While there has been periodic evaluation and use of some commercial capabilities, these efforts have been limited,” said GAO. 

“Establishing a process to regularly identify and evaluate commercial SSA capabilities … could enhance DoD’s ability to conduct this important national security mission.”

GAO said the Space Force should develop a plan to integrate the UDL into Space Force operational systems, to ensure operators have access to the full suite of DoD and commercial data 

Benefits of commercial data

One of the benefits of using commercial data is that some U.S. companies have space-tracking sensors in locations where DoD does not due to political or security concerns. This is a concern particularly in the Southern Hemisphere where DoD has limited sensor coverage, said GAO.

The report pointed out that most of DoD’s ground-based radars can only track objects larger than 10 centimeters in diameter in low Earth orbit, and objects about 1 meter in diameter in geostationary Earth orbit. Some commercial sensors, meanwhile, can track objects as small as 2 centimeters in diameter.

While the SSA industry is growing, it faces a number of challenges, GAO noted. A key issue is the significant uncertainty about the future size and stability of the SSA market. “Part of this uncertainty stems from the fact that the U.S. government provides much of its SSA data to the public for free, and SSA providers must add additional value beyond that which is provided by the government.”

Commercial companies, further, view the government as an “anchor” customer, the report said, so continuing uncertainty about government SSA funding could cause stagnation in the fielding of commercial capabilities or even drive companies or services out of the market. 

GAO noted that the Space Force requested funding to buy commercial data in its budget request for the first time in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.  Approximately $20 million was budgeted in 2023 for commercial SSA data purchases and a total of about $110 million for fiscal years 2023 through 2027. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...