Sorting Out Responsibility For Space Traffic Management

commercial satellites
The growing number of commercial satellites entering service is pressing the case for designating a space traffic management agency to help prevent collisions, aerospace industry groups say.
Credit: Fleet/Shutterstock

An office within the U.S. Commerce Department is developing a capability to manage satellites in orbit, following through with the role assigned to it by the Trump administration.

The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) plans to launch a space traffic management (STM) pilot program in the next couple months to improve the government’s visibility and coordination of the growing number of commercial satellites entering service. The OSC is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a constituent agency of the Commerce Department.

  • Civilian office will demonstrate a new data repository
  • Trade groups meet with Commerce Department leadership
  • House plans space situational awareness hearings

“OSC is funded to develop and demonstrate an STM prototype called the Open Architecture Data Repository [OADR] this summer, integrating commercial industry technology within a cloud platform,” the office said in response to an Aviation Week inquiry. “The OADR pilot will leverage open-source technology to assist with managing the space operating environment by improving space situational awareness coverage and accuracy through data sharing with satellite operators.”

The office said it is collaborating with the Defense Department and Transportation Department on STM efforts.

Participation by the OSC signals a shift to a civil agency role in space surveillance—traditionally the military’s domain. The U.S. Space Force’s Combined Space Operations Center at Vandenberg AFB, California, is currently responsible for tracking objects in orbit. Following the historic Feb. 10, 2009, collision of the Iridium 33 and Russian Cosmos 2251 satellites over Siberia, which spewed nearly 2,000 fragments measuring at least 10 cm (4 in.) into low Earth orbit, the center began issuing conjunction warnings about potential satellite collisions.

Under the Biden administration and a Democratic majority in Congress, however, the civil government role in STM remains under development. The OSC this spring was in transition under acting Director Mark Paese, the NOAA deputy assistant administrator for satellite and information services. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee is expected to hold hearings to address the appropriate organizational approach to STM during its current term.

“With more satellites and megaconstellations being launched, there is a growing need to focus on safety, which has to be done internationally—we’re not the only ones launching satellites,” U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who chairs the House committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee, said at a Washington Space Business Roundtable virtual event in April. “Space situational awareness is a priority issue for this subcommittee, and we’re going to be talking about that.”

Beyer said the House committee has been working with the Biden administration and Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) on an infrastructure package in which “NASA is very much included” and plans to conduct a hearing this fall on a “whole-of-government” approach to space.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work on orbital debris and space traffic management, and also looking at the ways the commercial sector can help,” he said. “My basic reading of the committee is that this is likely best a national responsibility. We can manage it whatever way, but I’d much rather that it be one agency with a specific responsibility for it, and I’d rather it be NASA because the militarization of space is something that should worry all of us.”

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), Satellite Industry Association (SIA) and Commercial Spaceflight Federation cosigned a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in March, citing the “critical role” of the OSC to the U.S. space industry.

The trade groups urged Raimondo to retain the office’s staff until a new director takes over so that it can, among other duties, “Continue to rapidly stand up a civilian Space Situational Awareness team that will assume the responsibility of private and international satellite traffic warnings for the Department of Defense, per bipartisan support from the fiscal 2021 appropriations conferees.”

In fiscal 2021 appropriations legislation released in December 2020, Congress approved a request to merge the OSC with NOAA’s Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs, which licenses private remote-sensing satellites, and to provide the OSC with $10 million in funding—$5.9 million more than the two offices received in fiscal 2020 ($4.1 million). Lawmakers did not approve a proposal to move the OSC from NOAA into the Commerce Department’s Office of the Secretary.

Within the $10 million allocation, Congress directed the OSC to collaborate with industry and other federal agencies “to develop STM technical prototypes, initiate an open-architecture data repository, and perform STM demonstrations and experiments.”

The Commerce Department formally responded to the trade groups, “assuring us that they were focused on the office,” says Therese Jones, SIA senior director of policy. She was among representatives of the associations who met with Raimondo’s Chief of Staff Mike Harney. Among industry’s concerns, says Jones, is that the OSC under the Trump administration was ramped up with appointees and staffers detailed from other agencies, many of whom have now left the office.

“Our association position is that some sort of equivalent of an open-architecture data repository is needed as soon as possible, and that it is something that is desperately needed for industry coordination,” Jones says. “We don’t have an official position on where it should be. If it is in the Office of Space Commerce, we certainly hope that they staff up soon since this is such a big undertaking.”

Mike French, AIA vice president for space systems, says his association favors a sustained commitment to some civil agency for STM, and it does not want to see momentum lost in addressing what he describes as the pressing issue of orbital space debris.

“We’ve supported having a civil, federal department given the responsibility and the resources to conduct space situational awareness,” French says. “Looking forward, what we’d like to see is Commerce carry out those duties that the Congress provided to them. We’d like to see the space traffic management pilot program get up and running. We’d like to see how the additional $5.9 million is being utilized. Is that being utilized for industry partnerships as the [appropriations] bill described?”

The Commerce Department derives responsibility for the OADR from Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), signed by President Donald Trump on June 18, 2018. The preamble to the memorandum describes a future space operating environment shaped by large constellations of satellites and emerging commercial ventures in satellite servicing, debris removal, in-space manufacturing and space tourism. In order to maintain U.S. leadership in this environment, it says, a new approach is needed to advance STM and space situational awareness (SSA).

SPD-3 defines STM as: “The planning, coordination and on-orbit synchronization of activities to enhance the safety, stability and sustainability of operations in the space environment.” It states that SSA: “Shall mean the knowledge and characterization of space objects and their operational environment to support safe, stable and sustainable space activities.”

The memorandum called on federal agencies to: develop policies and regulations for future U.S. orbital operations; improve SSA coverage and accuracy through “data sharing, the purchase of SSA data or the provision of new sensors”; and create a new means of cataloging space debris to warn satellite operators of potential collisions. Basic, government-derived SSA data and STM services should be made available without direct user fees, the document instructs.

“To facilitate this enhanced data sharing, and in recognition of the need for [the Defense Department] to focus on maintaining access to and freedom of action in space, a civil agency should, consistent with applicable law, be responsible for the publicly releasable portion of the [Defense Department] catalog and for administering an open-architecture data repository,” SPD-3 stated. “The Department of Commerce should be that civil agency.”

Using funding provided by a Senate amendment to fiscal 2020 appropriations legislation, the Commerce Department commissioned an independent review to assess which federal agency is best suited for the role of STM and to recommend statutory, regulatory or licensing authorities that would be required for any transfer of responsibility. It contracted with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), which evaluated the OSC, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, NASA and the Defense Department and concluded the OSC is best suited to perform STM.

Released in August 2020, the NAPA report called on Congress to: “Enact, without delay, appropriations and any required authorities for OSC to build this critical capability with requisite personnel, office infrastructure and authorities.”

At the time, the Commerce Department was seeking $15 million for STM in fiscal 2021, an official told reporters following the report’s release. That amount tracked with the NAPA estimate that standing up an STM capability over five years would cost $153-218 million. “In [fiscal 2025,] it is anticipated that the STM task will be in a steady state of funding,” the NAPA report said.

The 120-page report noted that neither the Defense Department nor NASA had expressed an interest in performing SSA and STM functions relating to commercial space activity. NASA and the FAA are “potentially attractive candidates,” for the mission, the report said.

The OSC’s concept of operations would be to “work collaboratively with military, nonmilitary, domestic and international actors in order to maintain a sustainable space domain in which commercial and research activities may thrive,” stated the report. “OSC views its STM responsibilities principally as a data management function, rather than principally as a task of managing space traffic.”

Michael Dominguez, a former senior Pentagon executive who served as acting Air Force secretary and Defense Department executive agent for space, chaired a five-member panel that adopted the report unanimously.

Dominguez and other panel members authored an op-ed that Government Executive published the day of the report’s release. “While the Commerce Department ultimately scored highest in our analysis, the ‘which agency’ question ought not obscure two more urgent issues,” the panelists wrote. “There is an imperative to act now, and the concept for exercising the federal government’s space situational awareness and traffic management responsibilities must not only be effective, but also should stimulate innovation, both in situational awareness/traffic management and in space-based commerce.”

OSC planning to gather space surveillance data predated the NAPA report. The Commerce Department issued a request for information in the spring of 2019 seeking input from industry on SSA and STM development, including the creation of a shared repository of satellite operators’ data. At the time, the Commerce Department was nearing a final agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory to gain access to the Unified Data Library (UDL), an internet-based repository of space objects with data from commercial, government and academic organizations.

Bluestaq, a data analytics and software company, in March 2021 said it was awarded a two-year, $280 million contract extension from the Space Force to continue development and data integration of the UDL. The Colorado Springs-based company won a Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2019 to integrate space and air data.

Plans called for the UDL to serve as the base of the Commerce Department’s own repository of SSA data, which would be made available to satellite operators to help them avoid collisions in space, Kevin O’Connell, then-director of the OSC, told C4ISRNET. The office hosted industry days to discuss the “design, development, operation and governance” of the OADR requirement in November 2020.

O’Connell, who directed the OSC from July 2018 to January 2021, carried out the guidance expressed in SPD-3.

“The office’s staffing expanded via cross-bureau assignments and contractor hires, especially to support [the Commerce Department’s] future role in providing space situational awareness to commercial operators,” states a NOAA budget document to Congress. “The department continued to promote legislative proposals to increase the office’s budget and elevate the office organizationally.”

Among other accomplishments, the Commerce Department developed a road map for its “future role in providing Space Situational Awareness to commercial operators,” demonstrated SSA concepts through a cloud-based data management platform, collected information on commercial SSA capabilities, and “established a continuous presence” in the Defense Department’s existing SSA operations center, says the budget document.

In a September 2020 paper, the Center for Space Policy and Strategy (CSPS) recommended “key actions” the government should take to implement STM; first on the list was to identify the agency that will provide space situational awareness and STM services to satellite operators. CSPS is part of The Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit organization based in El Segundo, California, that operates a federally funded research and development center focused on space.

“While there is a growing consensus on the need to transition STM to a civilian agency, an inability to legislate the decision on which agency or to resource that agency to execute the mission keeps the mission in the Department of Defense,” CSPS said. “[T]here are differences between the various candidate organizations that are significant, but the pace of change in space operations means that the decision is needed soon.”

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.