U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) took nearly a month to openly acknowledge to the press that one of the country’s oldest satellites fragmented into 43 pieces in orbit last month, creating a debris field.

This is viewed by some as too slow and underscores an argument that the military is the wrong place for oversight and management of space traffic, according to one influential onlooker.

Brian Weeden, a technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation and respected voice on these topics as space has become accessible to a growing number of nations, feels the public acknowledgment of the fragmentation of Defense Meteorological Satellite Program No. 13 was too slow.

AFPSC only publicly acknowledged the Feb. 3 incident to Space News on Feb. 27 in response to a query. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the command, said officials there reported the pertinent information into www.space-track.org, a database used for reporting satellite operations issues among users who participate worldwide. The site is members only, though anyone can establish an account. The issue, Weeden says, is that it only lists telemetry data and a user has to know what he is looking for to understand such data. "Space-track is just a database," he said. "You can write a script to poll the site for new things," but the issue is getting the notice in a timely fashion.

The first public indication of the event came from amateur satellite watchers in discussions in social media on Feb. 9, Weeden said. AFSPC officials say "damage to the power system" of the weather satellite is to blame for "rendering it unrecoverable."

"I was equally baffled by the silence," Weeden says. "If the satellite operators’ first knowledge of the event came from the amateur observers on Twitter, I don’t think that bodes well for the U.S. military emphasis on sharing."

The question being raised is why the U.S. military did not acknowledge the event publicly, outside of space-track.org, which is monitored by users and some enthusiasts. The advantages to a prompt public disclosure are fairly obvious: the military could "control the story" in a sense by being the first to acknowledge it, avoiding speculation of malfeasance being behind the incident. And by openly announcing such an incident, the military could gain credibility in its push for potential control of space traffic oversight as debate continues among U.S. agencies interested in space about just such a structure and where it should reside.

On Feb. 3, operators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – which oversee DMSP satellites – detected a thermal spike on the spacecraft and decided to "render the vehicle safe." This includes putting the spacecraft in a "safe, terminal configuration, and then the team disconnected the solar array from charging the subsystem to prevent subsequent battery anomaly," an AFSPC spokesman said. "Safe in this context means depleting all energy resources on the satellite and shutting down all critical functions. NOAA completed commanding on the satellite before it was aware a debris field had formed." DMSP, developed decades ago, was not designed to be maneuverable, so operators were unable to put it in a disposal orbit.

Acknowledging this publicly could set a good example for countries newer to space and those that operate there but not in a manner welcomed by the West, such as China, which has conducted anti-satellite tests, one resulting in a large debris field.

The Joint Space Operations Center (Jspoc), a unit of Strategic Command that monitors space traffic, had not warned of any potential conjunctions as a result of the debris field as of March 2.

Yet Weeden wonders whether the quiet position taken by the military was a result of concern that the incident could be due to a knee-jerk worry on the part of operators that the satellite was the subject of a hostile action. But, he says, damage to one satellite could be indicative of a larger event that could impact operators outside the U.S. national security community; as an example, a space weather anomaly could cripple multiple spacecraft. This, he says, is why a prompt, open sharing of information is needed.

The reason to go public, Weeden said, would be to warn other operators to look for symptoms in their own fleets. Reporting to space-track.org by operators is not mandatory and there is no enforcement regime. Nor is there a guarantee that other operators are receiving the data while it is relevant.

The incident occurred amid a debate in the U.S. government over who should ultimately handle space situational awareness – or space traffic monitoring – and, possibly selective authority if action is needed based on that data. Such a debate is being mirrored among international agencies and operators. At issue is whether there should be an organization like the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets standards that are overseen and enforced by various nations’ local civil aviation authorities. Part of the issue for space operations, though, is not all nations operating in space have such a local oversight apparatus, Weeden says.

Within the U.S. government, the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates classified U.S. spacecraft, has made a play for control in this area. Some suggest the FAA could be the right place for such a mission. "The U.S. military is not the right place," Weeden says, because of its propensity against sharing data in a timely fashion. Also an issue is the military’s challenges in upgrading hardware and software quickly. Hampered by the Pentagon’s laborious procurement process, the military is handicapped in its ability to keep its systems up to date for such a mission, he says.