WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department is expanding efforts to share space situational awareness data with other governments and commercial satellite operators even as it continues to wrestle with barriers related to national security concerns as well as technical and cultural issues, U.S. military officials say.

There is widespread agreement that some level of cooperation among operators, even potentially adversarial ones, is necessary given the increased crowding in orbits used for critical applications including communications, navigation and weather forecasting. Not only is the number of operational satellites in these orbits increasing, so is the amount of debris that can be tracked but not controlled.

The Defense Department operates the most sophisticated space surveillance network in the world and generally recognizes the benefits of sharing data, from both an economic and national security standpoint. While there is overlap between the two, national security takes precedence, said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jay Santee, principal director in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy.

Speaking during a July 19 panel discussion on space situational awareness, Santee said the Defense Department is in the midst of a study with the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. Strategic Command of how much space situational awareness data can be shared without compromising national security.

“We have to be fairly rigorous and disciplined and think through the implications of what we are going to share and how we are going to share it,” Santee said.

One of the challenges is that the U.S. national security community tends to be fairly insular, Santee said. But others are technical, particularly when it comes to combining Defense Department data with data from outside sources.

For example, commercial satellite operator Intelsat has said warnings of orbital conjunctions — close approaches between operational satellites and other objects — provided by Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) could be improved with better use of data provided by operators themselves. Because satellite operators frequently maneuver their spacecraft, the JSPOC warnings are not necessarily based on the most up-to-date information.

Commercial operators, through an orbital data-sharing cooperative known as the Space Data Association, have met with Strategic Command to discuss the feasibility of providing experimental service that would enable JSPOC to automatically ingest and process the most up to date position-location data on commercial satellites. The proposal so far has gotten little traction, even though Strategic Command acknowledges it cannot automatically ingest outside information today.

Part of the problem with bringing outside data into JSPOC’s system, Santee said, has to do with cybersecurity concerns.

Santee was not specific, but Defense Department computing systems are under constant attack by increasingly sophisticated hackers, making cybersecurity a top priority, defense officials say. Opening up JSPOC’s system to outside data could potentially open up an avenue to hackers.

Despite these and other challenges, the U.S. government continues to expand its cooperative ties in space situational awareness, primarily with allies but even with potential adversaries. This is in accordance with U.S. President Barack Obama’s January 2011 National Security Space Strategy, which states that shared awareness of the orbital environment will prevent mishaps, misconceptions and mistrust.

In the last few years, the White House has announced a number of data-sharing agreements with other countries including a five-year pact with Canada and other, though more tentative, arrangements with Australia, France and Japan.

Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who as commander of Strategic Command has some authority to negotiate space data-sharing agreements with U.S. allies, told reporters here July 12 that six such arrangements are pending. These types of agreements will contribute to the ability to maneuver safely in space, he said.

Audrey Schaffer, a space policy analyst in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said the quality of U.S. space situational awareness data provided to other countries has improved significantly in the last few years.

“I think we have actually come a long way in the last couple of years,” Schaffer said during a July 18 panel here on emerging trends in space. “So I think from my perspective, just from a U.S. perspective, it will be really interesting to see how other countries overcome whatever sort of internal process issues that they have to share some of the information that they have more widely … with other countries.”

Michael Listner, a policy consultant with Space Law and Policy Solutions in East Rochester, N.H., said orbital data-sharing agreements will always be constrained by the reality that countries with an interest in working together today could become adversaries in the future.

“My knowledge of the subject is even though we are sharing [space situational awareness data], there are political thoughts that we shouldn’t be sharing as much as we have so far,” Listner said. “And I think that is always going to be a factor in any future sharing agreements.”



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