WAILEA, Hawaii — The commanding general of the U.S. Space Force says the service is revising a commercial space strategy to offer more specific guidance on what commercial capabilities are needed, particularly in space domain awareness.

In a speech at the AMOS Conference on space situational awareness here Sept. 20, Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations for the Space Force, said a commercial space strategy document is “sitting on my desk” but requires revisions to make it actionable for the service to carry out.

“As I was reading through it, I said, ‘This is not enough,’” he said. “It can’t just be a strategy with aspirational platitudes about how we’re going to work together.”

He said the Space Force is now working to revise the document to better define what capabilities can be acquired from the private sector and those that are “inherently governmental.” An example of the latter, he said, was nuclear command and control.

“What are the other things that are inherently governmental, that we really need to say, this is an organic military responsibility because of how critical it is?” he said. “Let’s clearly define those so that we can open up the space for other commercial services.”

“Right now, it doesn’t feel like the words get there,” he said of the current draft of the strategy in a later interview. He noted he wanted to avoid simply calling for buying more commercial data, instead focusing on specific needs that could be filled by commercial providers.

“What you have to do is you have to really analyze it and say, what’s going to actually help this mission area and where can we leverage commercial industry?” he said. “That’s just going to take some analysis.”

He said he wanted to find “some significant gaps that we think are best filled by commercial data or commercial services or a new commercial capability,” then determine which of those approaches would be best to full those gaps. “We just don’t have that level of fidelity yet because we haven’t asked all those questions. So that’s why I put it on pause.”

Without that more detailed analysis, “this document becomes more aspirational than actionable,” he said in his speech, estimating that a more actionable strategy document should be released by the end of the year.

Filling gaps in space domain awareness

In his speech, Saltzman emphasized the importance of space domain awareness, calling it “foundational” to the service’s other activities in space.

“Success in the space domain also requires comprehensive and actionable space domain awareness,” he said. “We must understand what’s happening in space to ensure safe operations while simultaneously monitoring for behaviors that are irresponsible, even hostile.”

There are gaps in space domain awareness, he acknowledged in the later interview. The biggest, he said, is monitoring the geostationary belt and beyond. One effort to fill that gap is the launch of Silent Barker, a joint mission of the National Reconnaissance Office and the Space Force placed into orbit by an Atlas 5 Sept. 8. Officials said before the launch that Silent Barker would monitor satellites in the GEO belt.

Saltzman described Silent Barker as a “GEO watchdog” mission. “We expect great things out of that sensor,” he said, but did not elaborate on its capabilities.

A second gap is the limited number of sensors, like radars, in the Southern Hemisphere. That “creates complications” when trying to track maneuvers of satellites in low Earth orbit, he noted. “Having exquisite, high-fidelity information about what’s going on at GEO and then having as comprehensive access as possible to the Southern Hemisphere are some of the areas that we’re really exploring.”

International partnerships are one key way to help fill those gaps. “This is where land matters to space,” he said, in terms of locating tracking systems and ground stations. “We’re pushing on an open door. A lot of countries are willing to work with us on this.”

Commercial capabilities will also play a role. There are ongoing evaluations of commercial data by MIT Lincoln Labs and the 19th Space Defense Squadron to under its quality and its limitations. “We’re working hard to fully understand what the data brings.”

“All of our other activities, from space superiority to global mission operations and then maintaining our assured access to space, is going to be dependent on space domain awareness,” he said in his speech. “We’ve got to get this right. It’s truly the most foundational thing that we do for all our mission areas.”

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...