Space Force official: We need the Commerce Department’s space traffic office to be successful

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Maj. Gen. Deanna Burt said it's imperative to have a civilian office to manage traffic given the rapid growth in commercial space activities

WASHINGTON — Space Force Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt said discussions between DoD and the Department of Commerce are picking up momentum as both agencies work to figure out how to transition space traffic management to the Office of Space Commerce. 

Burt, who is special assistant to the vice chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, spoke Nov. 7 at the Air Traffic Control Association’s annual conference and exhibition. 

She said it is “absolutely vital” that Commerce succeeds at establishing a civilian space traffic management office, an effort that started in 2018 when the former Trump administration issued a policy directing Commerce to provide spaceflight safety services for civil and commercial satellite operators, a job currently performed by U.S. Space Command’s 18th Space Defense squadron.

Burt said she met in July with Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce. “He’s doing great work. And we’ve been teaming with him over the last few months,” she added. “It’s vital for the Department of Defense that the relationship is successful.”

There is no time to waste getting this office stood up, given the rapid growth in commercial space activities, said Burt. “Every domain has a civil entity or government entity that works the traffic in a peacetime environment. We need to make that happen in the space domain.”

DoD has performed these duties by default “primarily because we had the preponderance of assets on orbit. But that is no longer the case. The commercial market is outstripping us in numbers,” Burt said.

Just like the U.S. Air Force scrambles jets when there’s unauthorized aircraft in the air, the same concept would apply in space, she said. The routine space traffic should be managed by a civilian agency and DoD would be called up when there’s something suspicious or nefarious going on. 

A key part of the transition is figuring out “how we communicate” between Commerce and Defense, Burt said. “There absolutely has to be interchangeable data and information so that we don’t have any unknowns.”

Burt said there are working groups from DoD and OSC meeting weekly to map out “how we’re going to go after this.”

The key questions that have to be answered, she said, are “how are we sharing data? What are we measuring the data against ? What is truth data? What’s the classification of the data? How will we protect the data? How will we maintain the catalog that’s produced and published to the world ? And what are basic services?”

The 2018 Space Policy Directive-3 directs the Department of Commerce to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense.

Commerce would inform satellite operators if there is a potential for a collision with another passing satellite or piece of debris. The 18th Space Defense Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, currently provides SSA services and issues collision warnings to satellite operators around the world.