Industry must help the U.S. government meet its responsibility for orbital safety

The U.S. Defense Department has, for many years, kept a catalog of data representing the tracks of satellites, spent rocket stages and debris, and has shared much of that catalog publicly. This space situational awareness, or SSA, data has enhanced orbital safety many times but has also proven to be inadequate, most infamously in 2009 when an inactive Russian communications satellite and an operational Iridium satellite collided. This inconsistent performance motivated a host of companies to attempt to make a business out of rapidly processing U.S. government SSA data into their own conjunction analyses, sometimes with the aid of their own private radars and other sensors. As an example, the company that I co-founded, Privateer Space, aims to aggregate, curate and exploit multisourced heterogeneous data in order to draw more insights regarding orbital space and Earth itself. We are already offering some basic space traffic management services.

While bespoke and advanced SSA services should have a thriving marketplace, basic orbital safety information from the U.S. government must be sufficiently accurate and precise to prevent people from crashing satellites into each other on orbit, and this data should be free to all without barriers to access. 

Right now, the free and globally accessible U.S. government data is imprecise. That’s a problem because to know something, you must measure it. To understand it, you must predict it. If you can’t make accurate predictions from measurements, you don’t truly understand your data. This is to say that the U.S. government ultimately wants to accurately and precisely predict the behavior of anthropogenic space objects, ASOs, for orbital safety purposes. This ability to predict must come from the statistical inference made from observations of the ASO population. The U.S. government has its own radars and classified sensors, but these are not ubiquitous and, as with all sensors, suffer from biases and performance shortcomings. The ability to confirm or refute a hypothesis confidently is generally strengthened by drawing conclusions from data generated by independent sources of observations. The inconsistency in accuracy and precision in what the U.S. government currently provides to the community could be greatly increased by acquiring observations beyond its own sensors. This includes the demonstrated sensing capabilities found among international allies and partners and the global private industry. 

While the U.S. government should use all available means to acquire these additional observations from independent sources beyond its own, not all of these observations need to be purchased. The U.S. government can be one of several customers of commercial space surveillance and tracking, SST, and should acquire other data as part of the agreement to provide authorization and continuing supervision of all space activities conducted by the nonstate actors it licenses. This legal leverage is codified in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, specifically the description of national responsibilities in Article VI. 

Also, many satellites have onboard GPS receivers to calculate position and velocity, and onboard computers to assess operational health. This information is embedded in the telemetry, tracking and command data, or TT&C, that’s sent to the ground. However, owners and operators are not required by law to install GPS receivers or health software, or to share that information if they do have those things onboard. They should be required to do so if they expect their national governments to authorize them to operate in space. Once that oversight is fixed, this data could be combined and fused with the U.S. government’s own sensor data to achieve a much more accurate and precise state of knowledge of, at least, the actively controlled satellites or ASOs. Obviously, debris do not transmit their location or anything else by definition, so the U.S. government could acquire independent data from partners via agreements and purchases from those companies that wish to make this part of their business models. 

Here in the U.S., Space Policy Directive-3 provides clear direction for the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce to lead the space traffic management enterprise by taking responsibility for the free and “publicly releasable portion of the DoD catalog and for administering an open architecture data repository.” This architecture must meet operational standards for accuracy, timeliness, validity, consistency and completeness, among other requirements, but achieving that will require ingesting, combining and fusing multisource heterogeneous data. Such an approach would make space more transparent and predictable and add up to a body of evidence that would empower governments to hold satellite operators legally accountable for their behaviors in space. 

To be sure, creating such a powerful repository will be a herculean task, but humanity faces an impending tragedy of the orbital commons unless governments recognize that space is a finite resource and therefore step up to their responsibilities for ensuring all of us can use space freely without hindrance in perpetuity. There are many companies that are proposing to do all of this for or instead of governments for the right amount of money. Doing that would be preposterous, given that governments, not companies, have all the legal responsibilities in space, including liability for any damages or harmful interference resulting from objects launched to, in, and from outer space. These companies should be encouraged to make a business of providing advanced commercial orbital safety services and products that go beyond the government services, which could include near-real-time orbital maneuver support or the like. 

Per Section 3 of Space Policy Directive-3, the U.S. government must provide basic space traffic management services “free of direct user fees,” and the Commerce Department’s Open Architecture Data Repository needs to be accurate and precise enough to keep people from crashing their satellites into each other or being hit by debris. 

Related Topics

Space safety

About Moriba Jah

Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist, space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. An AIAA fellow and MacArthur fellow, he’s also chief scientist of startup Privateer Space.

Industry must help the U.S. government meet its responsibility for orbital safety