Space objects and orbital debris around Earth orbit. Credit: Kayhan Space

LAS VEGAS — American and Chinese officials met recently to discuss space situational awareness (SSA) data, part of broader efforts by the U.S. to better understand emerging national SSA systems.

Sandra Magnus, chief engineer for the Office of Space Commerce’s Traffic Coordination System for Space, or TraCSS, said the head of the office, Richard DalBello, met with Chinese counterparts on the sidelines of the International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan, earlier this month.

DalBello “recently had some really good conversations with his Chinese counterparts at the IAC meeting in Baku,” she said during a panel discussion at AIAA’s ASCEND conference here Oct. 23, later stating she didn’t have details about the substance of the discussions.

Those talks, she said, were linked to discussions about creating a “federated network” of regional SSA providers, which requires understanding what data they have to offer. “One of the charges for the Office of Space Commerce is to go out and start trying to have dialogues with some of these organizations and figure out where’s the mutual ground we can meet in the context of safety” in terms of what data can be shared and how.

“TraCSS envisions the future of SSA to be a globally federated system of providers with a series of interconnected national or regional hubs providing SSA information and services to spacecraft operators,” DalBello said in a statement to SpaceNews Oct. 24. “The first steps in implementing such a vision would be to engage in a broad international dialogue focused on standards and best practices, and this dialogue should be coordinated with the ongoing work of the UN on long-term sustainability.”

DalBello has previously noted the development of other national SSA systems. “We’re not in this alone,” he said during a session of the AMOS Conference in Hawaii in September. Systems like European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST) are emerging to provide services similar to what the U.S. government has been offering. He described EU SST as “the first of what will be a proliferation of international SSA systems.”

One challenge of cooperating and exchanging data with other national SSA systems, industry officials say, is to correlate that data in a useful way, particularly when they offer different positions of space objects. That goes beyond simple data exchange protocols to deeper understanding of how SSA data are collected and analyzed.

The meeting at the IAC, sources said, stemmed from a visit to China by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in late August. In a readout of a meeting between Raimondo and He Lifeng, vice premier of China, the Commerce Department said the two discussed topics that included “space commerce,” an apparent reference to the Office of Space Commerce’s work on TraCSS since there is little commercial space activity between the two countries. Sources said there are no plans for additional meetings.

Communications between the United States and China in space traffic coordination have been limited in recent years. U.S. officials have publicly complained that while they have provided, as a courtesy, conjunction warnings to China involving close approaches of space objects to Chinese crewed spacecraft, they rarely receive an acknowledgement.

In December 2021, the Chinese government filed a diplomatic message known as a note verbale with the United Nations, complaining that on two occasions Starlink spacecraft passed close to China’s Tiangong space station, creating what it claimed was a spaceflight safety hazard. The United States responded with its own note verbale in January 2022, saying it had concluded that the close approaches posed no safety threat to Tiangong.

China, in its note, claimed it had contacted U.S. officials several times by email but never received a reply. The U.S. responded that it was “unaware of any contact or attempted contact by China” about the incident before China filed its note verbale.

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...