Insight - Improving Space Situational Awareness

Monday, November 11, 2019

By Director of Program Planning, Brian Weeden, and Washington Office Director, Victoria Samson

Space situational awareness (SSA), defined as knowledge about the space environment and human activities therein, is foundational to space sustainability. SSA provides the underlying information that enables satellite operators to detect natural or hostile threats to their satellites, scientists to study the long-term evolution of and risks posed by orbital debris, and governments to monitor and supervise their own national space activities. 

As the space domain becomes more complex, improving access to quality SSA data and services for all space actors is increasingly important. The rapid growth in the number of satellites being launched by government and commercial actors, the emergence of cubesats and large constellations, and the growing population of orbital debris all drive increased need for more timely and accurate data to avoid collisions in orbit. Additionally, the proliferation of counterspace capabilities and the growing risk of conflict on Earth extending into space increases the importance of SSA for transparency and confidence-building. 

To help address this issue, SWF has continued our long-term focus on improving access to SSA for all space actors. Over the last eighteen months, we have engaged in specific activities aimed at improving national SSA capabilities and policies and international data sharing efforts.

Two of those efforts were workshops held in India and South Korea aimed at enhancing national awareness of SSA capabilities. In June 2018, SWF partnered with the National Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) to hold a 2-day workshop in Bengaluru, India, to discuss trends in SSA and the implications for India. In January 2019, SWF partnered with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) to hold a similar 2-day workshop in Seoul, South Korea.

Both events brought together interdisciplinary experts from Japan, Europe, Australia, and the United States, along with national experts from India and South Korea, to discuss trends in governmental and private sector SSA capabilities, programs, and data sharing initiatives. A key part of the discussions focused on how each country should develop its own national capabilities for SSA and to what degree new national policies and international partnerships could augment those national capabilities. 

These national-focused discussions were complemented by our continued engagement with the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Conference, which is held annually in Maui, Hawaii. AMOS is the foremost international conference focused on SSA and draws more than 800 experts from government and industry in more than 20 countries. At this year’s AMOS Conference, SWF helped organize and moderate panel discussions on the potential future of space traffic management and the role of SSA, norms of behavior, and licensing in managing large satellite constellations. 

In addition to these public discussions, SWF once again partnered with the Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB) to co-host the eighth annual AMOS Dialogue, a small, invitation-only workshop held annual on the margins of the AMOS Conference. The goal of the AMOS Dialogue series is to facilitate discussion among key stakeholders in SSA, thereby promoting greater collaboration and cooperation to enhance SSA for safe and responsible space activities. To accomplish this, the Dialogue brings together representatives from current and future SSA programs and initiatives around the world with a variety of end users and stakeholders so that they may exchange information and views in a not-for-attribution setting.

The topic of the 2019 AMOS Dialogue was open access data repositories (OADRs) to improve SSA data sharing. There is growing interest from both governments and satellite operators in merging different sources of SSA data together and in some cases making the fused data more widely available, with a few pilot programs and prototypes in the planning stages. This year’s Dialogue brought together governments, satellite operators, and astrodynamicists to discuss the key characteristics of such data repositories and how they can provide better data and services over existing solutions while also fostering trust with users. 

The major takeaways from this year’s Dialogue was that, when designed properly, open access data repositories can increase the interest of governments and satellite operators in merging different sorts of SSA data and, in some cases, make the fused data more widely available. Transparency is a key factor to the success of OADRs in general. Challenges to transparency include different technical specifications, secrecy (either for national security or commercial proprietary reasons), trust in the providers, balancing the need of public good versus private interests, ascertaining liability for the data given, and encouraging commercial innovation while at the same time providing enough information to ensure basic spacecraft safety. A more in-depth summary report can be found here.

We are also working to bring non-traditional tools to bear on SSA and working to increase the ability of everyone to contribute. In October 2019, SWF joined ConsenSys, Society of Women in Space Exploration (SWISE), and Dr. Moriba Jah from the University of Texas at Austin in launching TruSat, an experimental open source platform for crowd-sourced SSA. TruSat uses blockchain technologies to enable anyone to contribute SSA data in a trusted and verifiable manner. By doing so, we hope to create a globally-accessible, trusted record of satellite orbital positions that can help increase transparency, predictability, and accountability of on-orbit space activities. 

Throughout all our activities on SSA, we continue to see both a growing interest from space actors in the importance of SSA and a growing need for improving access to good SSA capabilities. Multiple efforts are underway around the world by both governments and the private sector to provide new types of SSA data and services and overall the situation is improving. However, much work still needs to be done to ensure the myriad of individual efforts provide complementary benefits that serve the needs of all space actors. More focus should be put on developing solutions such as OADRs that emphasize openness, transparency, and collaboration. At the same time, more countries need to begin national conversations about their role in the SSA ecosystem, what capabilities they can bring to bear, and how they will engage with other actors. 

Last updated on November 14, 2019