U.S. Air Force to begin transferring space situational awareness data to Commerce Department

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commerce Department is “imminently” close to receiving a repository of satellite and space debris tracking data from the Air Force, a Commerce official said Wednesday. 

Kevin O’Connell, director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce, said the repository, called the Unified Data Library, is the first step in the transfer of some space situational awareness responsibilities as requested by the White House last year. 

President Donald Trump, in signing Space Policy Directive 3 in June 2018, directed the Defense Department to give the publicly releasable portion of its space situational awareness data to the Commerce Department. 

O’Connell said there is a growing urgency for the Commerce Department to begin handling that responsibility, driven particularly by the deployment of megaconstellations that could add thousands of new satellites in low Earth orbit. 

“We had an approach that served us well for decades,” O’Connell said July 17 during a panel organized by the International Astronautical Congress here. “That approach won’t serve us well for the next decade, or the decades to come, given even our most modest expectations about the space economy.”

Satellite operators have relied on the U.S. Air Force for notifications when other satellites or debris are on a possible collision course. The White House wants the military to shed that responsibility so it can focus on “maintaining access to and freedom of action in space,” according to Space Policy Directive 3. 

As the Commerce Department prepares to carry that mantle, it is looking to commercial companies to play a big role, O’Connell said. 

The Commerce Department issued a request for information to industry in April that received 42 responses, O’Connell said. That response rate led the department to extend the comment window until the end of July, he said. 

“I’m amazed at what’s come back,” O’Connell said. He estimated another 20 responses will likely come in before the process is completed. 

O’Connell said companies not traditionally associated with the space industry, such as those involved in artificial intelligence, cloud computing and machine-to-machine communications, are presenting ideas on how to improve space situational awareness. 

“We are going to get to work with some of these companies when we get access to this iteration of the Unified Data Library,” he said. 

O’Connell said the Commerce Department has had extensive conversations with U.S. allies about their participation in the department’s new responsibilities. The Unified Data Library will be their first opportunity to get involved, he said. 

The Commerce Department has not finalized the framework for handling its new responsibilities. George Nield, the former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, suggested the government initiate a civil space traffic management pilot program as soon as possible.

“Ideally, this would be a whole of government effort with participation by interested stakeholders who are industry, academia and the international community,” Nield said during the panel. “Initial activities could take advantage of existing hardware, software and observations.” 

Nield said the purpose of the pilot program would be to measure the new system against what the Air Force currently provides. 

The Commerce Department is making progress bringing commercial and allied stakeholders together, O’Connell said, which he described as promising, though not at the level Nield suggested. 

“We are seeing that kind of discussion,” O’Connell  said. “It’s probably not as ambitious as a pilot, but it’s what is being done today.”

Members of the Satellite Industry Association are developing policy suggestions as well, according to Therese Jones, the trade group’s senior director of policy. She said the association, whose members include spacecraft operators such as Intelsat and Spire, as well as commercial space situational awareness companies AGI and ExoAnalytic Solutions, want to work on sharing data and improving data quality, among other things. 

“I would encourage everyone to think not as much about prescriptive technical solutions as I would suggest thinking about what sort of outcome you want from whatever technical solution is currently at hand,” she said.