The February 2009 collision between an active Iridium satellite and a dead Russian satellite was a wake-up call to the world that demonstrated space weapons and hostile activities in orbit were not the only, or even the most probable, threats to satellites and space-based capabilities. Although measures have been taken since to improve the tracking and warning systems used to detect and avoid future collisions, they are not enough. In the interests of national security, these measures are still being managed and conducted largely by the U.S. military, and the constraints of this approach are hindering further progress.

As the country with the greatest reliance on satellites for a variety of national security and economic benefits, the United States realized the danger that further collisions and the large amounts of space debris they create would pose to its space capabilities. The United States was also the country with the best space situational awareness capabilities in the world, and in the aftermath of the collision was faced with the choice of either releasing the highly accurate satellite location information maintained by the U.S. military so that all satellite operators could calculate their own collision warnings or directing the U.S. military to provide a collision warning service for all of the estimated 1,000 active satellites. Largely because of the desire to control the information and try and keep hidden some of its national security space assets, the U.S. government became the space collision warning agency for the world.

Three years later, both the benefits and consequences of that choice are being felt. The close approach warnings provided by the U.S. military to all satellite operators, numbering more than 150 a year, have greatly increased the visibility and awareness of the space debris problem and caused many satellite operators to become more responsible in their orbital activities. However, the entire space world, and indeed everyone who enjoys the benefits derived from space capabilities, has become reliant on the U.S. military’s space situational awareness capabilities, which despite many years of promises have not been upgraded to deal with the task they are now depended upon to perform.

The foundation of the U.S. military’s space situational awareness capabilities is space surveillance and in particular the production and maintenance of a database of objects in orbit and their locations. This database, known as a satellite catalog, is currently maintained by two legacy computer systems that have been scheduled for replacement for more than a decade. Several military acquisition programs to replace these systems have been proposed, announced, attempted and subsequently killed with very few results. Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force announced yet another programmatic reboot to try and solve this problem.

A new report by Secure World Foundation lays out the history of these failures and concludes that they are largely the result of the U.S. Air Force’s approach to space situational awareness as a purely military mission that needs to be solved by a small number of people developing capabilities from a national security perspective. The report recommends that the United States take a more open approach to developing astrodynamics standards and space situational awareness capabilities that involves all stakeholders in the process, including satellite operators, foreign entities and the international astrodynamics research community. In particular, an open, public competition should be held to evaluate the software algorithms used to calculate satellite orbits, similar to what is currently used to develop cryptographic standards. The National Research Council recently published a separate study on astrodynamic standards at the behest of the U.S. Air Force that comes to a similar conclusion.

However, the Secure World Foundation report goes further and discusses the two main challenges that were side-stepped in 2009 but need to be addressed now for this more inclusive approach to succeed: the central role of the U.S. military in space situational awareness and the current policies for protecting the existence and location of certain U.S. national security satellites in orbit. Developing the complex software needed to replace the legacy computer systems and providing a collision warning service to all satellite operators, including commercial and foreign entities, is a task ill-suited to the U.S. military. It is time to spin off both the catalog maintenance and collision warning mission to a nonmilitary entity. This would not only allow for a more flexible and open approach to developing the necessary software, but would free up the military to focus on the aspects of the space situational awareness mission critical to national security, such as determining capabilities, intentions and threats to satellites in orbit, that are value-added analyses built upon the core satellite catalog and enhance national security.

It is also necessary to address the primary reason for choosing to make the U.S. military the collision warning agency for the world after the 2009 Iridium 33-Cosmos 2251 collision — the desire to control the data and try and protect the existence and locations of certain U.S. national security satellites in orbit. During the Cold War, when the militaries of the United States and Soviet Union were the only sources of space situational awareness data and there were few commercial satellites in orbit, such measures to control information were feasible. However, with the emergence of alternative sources of information including the scientific and amateur satellite observation community, the large amount of data already publicly available on these satellites, and the growing importance of the safety of spaceflight, such measures add complexity and development costs and create bureaucratic rigidity with diminishing benefits in return.

Tackling these challenges will also make it easier to work with all spacefaring nations and space actors to improve space situational awareness for everyone. Space situational awareness and the sustainable use of outer space are not a problem the United States or any one country can solve alone. The cost and geographic coverage needed to track the hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris are more than any one country can handle, and those data need to be combined with owner-operator positions and planned maneuvers on active satellites in order to have a more accurate and actionable catalog. More importantly, the sources of data and analytical techniques used to produce collision warnings and other analyses need to be trusted by all parties. Subjecting sources and techniques to objective scrutiny is a necessary first step to building this trust.

Over the next few decades, the space sustainability challenges associated with a more congested and contested space environment will become ever more important. Potential collisions between space objects, radiofrequency interference and irresponsible behavior will be more likely and dangerous threats than traditional concerns over space weapons and hostile activity. Adopting a more open approach to space situational awareness is the optimal strategy for leveraging the best and brightest minds in government, industry and academia around the world to help meet these challenges.


Brian Weeden is technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation.