During the course of its investigation into the recent solar-array deployment failure on the Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul 2 satellite, manufacturer Space Systems/Loral got U.S. Air Force help in the form of photographs of the satellite taken while it was in geostationary transfer orbit — shortly after it separated from its launch vehicle but before it made its way to its operating location. The classified photos, shown only to a handful of appropriately cleared Loral employees, were inconclusive, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Air Force was willing to provide such sensitive data in the first place.
This anecdote illustrates a maturing and increasingly important partnership between the Air Force, operator of the world’s most capable space surveillance network, and a commercial satellite industry that, while highly sophisticated in its own right, occasionally needs the service’s help either to diagnose and fix on-orbit problems or to avoid them altogether. It’s not just commercial operators that depend on the Air Force’s willingness to share data that no one else can provide: According to Ambassador Greg Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, the Pentagon on numerous occasions has alerted China of potential orbital conjunctions — space industry parlance for dangerously close approaches between orbiting objects — involving its satellites and space debris, including debris created when China deliberately destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-launched missile.
Such cooperation, a major emphasis of the U.S. National Security Space Strategy released in January, benefits everybody. Commercial operators are better able to protect expensive on-orbit assets, which in turn provide services critical not only to everyday global commerce but also to U.S. military operations. And while China is viewed as a potential U.S. adversary, a collision involving one of its satellites would create more debris, increasing the hazard for all spacefaring nations. Data sharing also helps build confidence and trust among potential adversaries, reducing the chances of misunderstandings that could escalate into something more serious.
According to Ambassador Schulte, U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees Air Force space activities, has the authority to negotiate bilateral orbital data sharing agreements with commercial satellite operators and soon could be doing the same with other governments. Institutionalizing this kind of collaboration is a good thing, what with the orbital environment becoming increasingly congested.
Things have come a long way since late 2008, when satellite operator Intelsat fumed over what it said was the Air Force’s denial of orbital data the company sought in order to determine whether it was safe or advisable to maneuver one of its satellites; evidently the service is coming around to the idea that sharing data under appropriate safeguards is in everybody’s interest, including its own. The Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul 2 episode is but the latest public example of this very positive trend.