Insight - The Long Road to Civil Space Situational Awareness

Friday, March 6, 2020

By Project Manager Josh Wolny, Summit for Space Sustainability Intern Renata K. Kommel, and Director of Program Planning Brian Weeden

One of the most critical challenges to the long-term sustainability of outer space is the growing risk of collisions between space objects, including both active satellites and space debris. This risk is particularly exacerbated by the rapid proliferation of space actors and activities, and the associated growing congestion of the space environment. While space sustainability has increased in salience as a highly discussed policy topic, this increased awareness has not translated to coordinated and conclusive action among the many government stakeholders that are required to change the status quo.   

That is one of the reasons why Secure World Foundation is hosting its second Summit for Space Sustainability on June 2-3, 2020, which will be a unique gathering of global stakeholders from government, industry, and civil society focused on developing solutions for space sustainability. The Summit will encompass a cross-section of issue areas, including both space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM), which are critical components of any efforts to tackle the problem of orbital congestion.

On February 11, 2020, SWF Director of Program Planning Dr. Brian Weeden testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. The hearing, “Space Situational Awareness: Examining Key Issues and the Changing Landscape,” featured a series of panelists with a reverberating message to act now on improving SSA, or be prepared to face the consequences. This same message was reiterated in another hearing the next day before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation with a completely different set of panelists. The interest of these two authorizing committees in the Congress may hint at the end of a very long beginning for finally establishing an organization on the civil (non-military) side of government with the responsibility and funding for executing a crucial part of the SSA mission.

Recent public and Congressional interest was drawn to space traffic as two defunct U.S. satellites (GGSE and IRAS) came within 18 meters of colliding 900 kilometers over Pittsburgh at the end of January 2020. A similar event, but with a different outcome, the Iridium-Cosmos collision of February 2009, was an impetus for the U.S. Air Force to add the practice of global conjunction analysis and warning to its space object tracking mission. While the USAF had maintained a catalog of satellites and debris on orbit prior to 2009, they only screened a portion of the catalog for possible conjunction. Eleven years after the Iridium-Cosmos collision, the amount of active satellites in orbit has grown from nearly 1,000 to just over 2,200 and a growth of the space debris population from approximately 15,000 tracked pieces to over 26,000. In this same amount of time, the USAF’s systems for tracking and disseminating actionable information have not kept pace.

The space policy community, in and out of government, has been discussing how to improve SSA for years. The idea of moving at least the conjunction analysis and warning mission outside of the military started on the fringes as a means to avoid the secrecy, acquisitions, and culture challenges of housing what is essentially a public data management effort within the national security community. After some pushback, even the Department of Defense became advocates as a civil agency counterpart would allow USAF personnel to focus on the national security aspects of SSA. The policy proposal moved its way through the executive branch interagency process, where the question of where best to house the civil SSA mission dominated discussion. The National Space Council, with direction from the President and Vice President, decided to give the job to the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC), and this became official administration policy with Space Policy Direction-3 in June 2018. Yet, almost two years on from SPD-3, Congress has not enhanced the OSC’s authority, nor appropriated the funds to allow the Office to hire enough employees and acquire the systems necessary to perform the civil SSA mission.

A number of factors have led to this Congressional inaction. President Trump’s call for the establishment of the Space Force - at the signing ceremony of SPD-3 - consumed attention and time. So too did the November 2018 midterm elections, the March 2019 announcement of the 2024 return to the Moon, the Space Force legislative proposal, budget fights, other legislation, impeachment, and now the impending campaigns for the November 2020 presidential election. While these relatively normal distractions to the Congressional lawmaking process have played out, the USAF’s public satellite catalog has had a net gain of 928 tracked objects, 457 of which are active satellites owned and operated by just six companies with plans for thousands more (numbers drawn from catalog).

Legislation has been proposed that would directly or tangentially implement the provisions of SPD-3, but none have passed both Houses of the Congress. The table below outlines these provisions:

H.R. 6226

American Space SAFE Management Act

H.R. 3610

American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2019


Space Frontier Act of 2019

  • 115th Congress (2017-18)
  • 15 co-sponsors (13 R, 2 D)
  • Passed out of Committee. Did not get a full House vote.
  • Directs NASA Administrator to conduct a study on how to best implement a whole of government SSA and STM plan.
  • Creates ‘Center for Civil SSA and STM Technology Excellence’ at a U.S. university with a $2 mi annual budget over five years.
  • Directs Secretary of Commerce to establish a civil SSA program to provide ‘basic set’ SSA data for no fee.
  • Directs Secretary of Commerce to publish voluntary civil space traffic coordination guidelines.
  • 116th Congress (2019-20)
  • 115th Congress version (H.R. 2809) passed House with 15 co-sponsors (13 R, 2 D)
  • More focused on re-calibrating commercial space regulatory authority in the Office of Space Commerce.
  • Authorizes (suggests) appropriations of $5 mil for OSC in FY 2020.
  • Elevates Director of OSC to Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Space Commerce.
  • Does not mention SSA or STM, but with elevation and funding, OSC could use SPD-3 as justification to execute proposed SSA/STM mission.
  • 116th Congress (2019-20)
  • 6 co-sponsors (3 R, 3 D)
  • 115th Congress version (S.3277) passed Senate, but failed in House with 3 co-sponsors (1 R, 2 D)
  • More focused on re-calibrating commercial space regulatory authority in the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and OSC.
  • Elevates Director of AST and OSC to Assistant Secretary levels.
  • Extends ISS authorization from 2024 to 2030.
  • Authorizes (suggests) appropriations of $10 mil annual budget from 2020-2024 for new ‘Bureau of Space Commerce.’
  • Does not mention SSA or STM, but with elevation and funding, OSC could use SPD-3 as justification to execute proposed SSA/STM mission.

SSA is fundamental to everything the United States does in space, and the benefits derived from such activities. This includes protecting human exploration and science, ensuring critical weather and climate data, protecting important national security capabilities, and enabling economic growth and innovation in the commercial space sector. The huge amount of change the space domain is currently experiencing across civil, commercial, and national security sectors only adds to the salience and timeliness of this issue. Current SSA capabilities are dangerously insufficient to deal with the emerging challenges from the growing number of space actors, large constellations, orbital debris hazards, and a more complex and competitive geopolitical environment. Action from Congress should focus on implementing a federal civil SSA agency that has the required regulatory authorities and is appropriately resourced. That agency should be tasked to leverage commercial and international capabilities to build a civil SSA system that can meet the safety challenges of today and lay the foundation for the STM regime of tomorrow. Doing so would be a giant step toward ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities for the United States and all other nations, so that humanity can continue to utilize space for benefits on Earth.  

Last updated on March 6, 2020