As Space Gets More Crowded, House Committee Still Questioning SSA Path Forward

As Space Gets More Crowded, House Committee Still Questioning SSA Path Forward

Four years after President Trump assigned civil space situational awareness responsibilities to the Department of Commerce, Congress has yet to formally authorize the Department to take on that task. Based on a hearing last week, House Democrats and Republicans still have many questions. A Senate bill is slowly inching forward as part of the innovation and competition act, but what can get done in the limited legislative time remaining in this election year is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, Earth orbit gets more and more congested every day. SpaceX alone launched 106 more Starlink satellites this weekend.

Despite widespread agreement that something needs to be done to better keep track of the vastly growing population of satellites and debris orbiting Earth and off-load DOD from warning civil and commercial satellite operators of potential collisions so it can focus on its own requirements, how exactly to do that seems to be stymieing Congress.

A 2020 report from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) appeared to settle the question of what civil agency should take on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) for civil and commercial satellite operators. NAPA endorsed the Trump Administration’s decision in Space Policy Directive-3 to assign it to the Department of Commerce.

That at least convinced House and Senate appropriators to increase funding for the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), part of NOAA, but did not move authorizers to pass legislation officially adding it to the Department’s responsibilities.

Computer-generated graphic of space objects around Earth (2019). Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office.

OSC’s budget is up to $16 million now, ten times what it was in 2018, and the Biden Administration is asking for a sizeable increase in FY2023 — $88 million. It took them 15 months to fill the position of OSC Director, Richard DalBello just started the job last Monday, but the Administration apparently is finally ready to engage. NOAA recently issued a Request for Information to industry as well.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), chairing hearing on Space Situational Awareness, May 12, 2022. Screengrab.

But the bipartisan leadership of the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is still asking fundamental questions about the appropriate roles of the government and the private sector and how to avoid reinventing the wheel as subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) put it. He and Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who chairs the subcommittee, both sounded rather skeptical of the need to increase OSC’s budget by a “whopping 550 percent” in Beyer’s words.

Beyer said they are drafting bipartisan legislation, the Space Safety and Situational Awareness Transition Act of 2022,  but did not offer a timetable for when it will be introduced. Last year the Senate passed the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act (Wicker) that is incorporated in the Senate version of the innovation and competition legislation now working its way through conference, H.R. 4521.

Beyer is still weighing many of the issues, though.

“Some entities suggest that commercial companies can perform the civil SSA function and already do so, albeit on a smaller scale. Others argue the problem has been studied to death and we need to get on with it. First, we need to know exactly what we’re getting on with, because the transition to civil SSA remains unclear.
·        What functions and responsibilities should be transitioned?
·        What SSA data are needed and who will provide it?
·        What services and information, and at what level, will the civil capability provide?
·        And what roles will the government have and where should the commercial sector contribute?” – Rep. Don Beyer

Meanwhile, space is getting more and more crowded by the day. SpaceX is launching satellites for its Starlink broadband Internet satellite system 53 at a time. The company had two Starlink launches just this weekend, from Vandenberg Space Force Base, CA on Friday and from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Saturday putting 106 satellites into low Earth orbit in just two days. Another 53 are scheduled for launch tomorrow. That brings the total of operational Starlink satellites to around 2,200, about half of what will comprise the initial constellation. Thousands more will follow in a second-generation system and SpaceX is hardly the only company here and abroad with satellite Internet ambitions.

All of those on top of satellites launched by a growing number of countries and companies plus a huge amount of space debris.

Gen. Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations at the U.S. Space Force, told Sen Tim Kaine (D-VA) at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 3 that the number of space objects DOD is tracking has almost doubled in the past two years. “If I were to testify in front of you two years ago I’d have said we were tracking about 22,000 objects. Today, we’re probably tracking about mid-40,000 objects.” Of those, the number of satellites two years ago was “about 1,500. Today that number is close to 5,000 and the trends are going up.”

Historically, it is DOD that tracks space objects and performs “conjunction analyses” to determine if a collision is likely and shares the information with all satellite operators around the world. It maintains a master catalog of space objects that is publicly available except for classified national security satellites.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) at hearing on Space Situational Awareness, May 12, 2022. Screengrab.

OSC has been working with DOD since SPD-3 was issued to build an Open Access Data Repository (OADR) that combines the DOD data with that from commercial companies that have begun creating their own systems in recent years. The idea is that anyone will be able to access basic data for free, but the companies would offer enhanced services on a commercial basis.

At the hearing, Mariel Borowitz from Georgia Tech likened it to the weather satellite business. The National Weather Service makes weather data and forecasts available to the public for free, but companies like The Weather Channel and AccuWeather provide value-added services for a fee using government and other data.

One of the fundamental questions at the hearing was why the private sector can’t simply take on the SSA task with only a minor role for the Department of Commerce. Babin thinks the Department should be only a “commercial storefront.”

The Department of Commerce is the right agency for the job… [but] they don’t need to create a bloated bureaucracy nor should they duplicate DOD’s existing architecture or reinvent the wheel by building new systems and sensors. They should just be a commercial storefront that takes the government’s data, integrates it with any necessary commercial and operator data, and makes that information available to the public through commercial architectures. We aren’t ready for space traffic management or being a traffic cop in space.  Instead we should elevate the Office of Space Commerce out of NOAA so that they can better coordinate across the department and throughout the government and internationally as well.” — Rep. Brian Babin

Andrew D’Uva from the Space Data Association (SDA) told the subcommittee that SDA was created in 2009 by satellite operators to share detailed location data on their satellites and planned maneuvers because of increasing congestion “and the lack of adequate SSA support from any U.S. or foreign government agency.” Intelsat, Inmarsat and SES, the three largest satellite operators at the time, were the founders. DalBello, the new head of OSC, was at Intelsat at that time and is credited with leading establishment of the non-profit organization.

Those “competing commercial satellite operators jointly established” SDA and the number of participants has grown to 30, all “without government funds” D’Uva said. SDA’s Space Data Center is operated by a U.S. commercial company, COMSPOC.

SDA “is fully supportive” of the Department of Commerce partnering with the commercial sector, but disappointed that since the Biden Administration assumed office in January 2021 OSC has been “perpetuating avoidable risks and delays.”  It has been “electing not to obtain, deploy, and manage existing U.S. commercial space traffic coordination capabilities and services to enable the basic U.S. government‐derived SSA data and space traffic management services contemplated in SPD‐3 and funded by Congress.”  Instead “they turned inward, taking their government system development approach from the Federal Research and Development Centers.” He views that as “too risky and slow, and it’s unnecessary.”

Kevin O’Connell, Founder, Space Economy Rising, and former Director of the Office of Space Commerce. Credit: Space Economy Rising website.

Kevin O’Connell, who headed OSC from 2018 until the end of the Trump Administration said the point of SPD-3 was not to replicate DOD’s system, but develop a modern system that could adapt to a burgeoning space economy with satellite servicing, space solar power and other services entering the market. He is now founder of Space Economy Rising, LLC. Improving space safety with better conjunction warnings is the top priority, but only the starting point that will lead “to new space safety services that will enhance national security and serve as a further foundation of the space economy.”

Asked for his estimate of how much OSC needs compared to the $88 million the Biden Administration is requesting, O’Connell said when he was there they thought a $40-60 million annual budget was needed for SSA alone, not including OSC’s other responsibilities.

Matthew Hedyuk of the Aerospace Corporation, one of the Federally Funded Research and Development Corporations (FFRDCs) alluded to by D’Uva, had a very different viewpoint. He argued for a step-by-step approach that does begin with replicating what DOD is doing for the civil and commercial sectors.

He identified three components of the SSA task: conjunction (collision) screening, risk assessment, and mitigation planning. For the civil and commercial sectors, DOD is responsible only for conjunction screening, he said, while the satellite owner/operators are responsible for the other two. He believes the lowest risk approach to transitioning responsibiltiy is to take them one at a time beginning with conjunction warnings. “Once this duplication of the current capability is in place, accommodation for advanced services to provide conjunction risk assessment and mitigation action planning assistance can be made.”

Borowitz raised another set of issues. She agrees on leveraging the commercial sector, but with caveats. Conjunction warnings need to be free and “we have to be careful about [not] having a completely opaque system. So if it’s done by a commercial entity, then you can’t share any of the underlying data or algorithms and things they do. That would really limit some of the benefits of moving to a civil system.”

Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin focused on the challenges in ensuring data accuracy. He referred to all the data points on the location of space objects, from DOD and others, as “opinions.”  “There’s lots of ambiguity” in the data and calculating the likelihood of collisions. “There’s not a combined, aggregated pool of evidence about what’s going on in space. … That’s what we need this civil entity to do. That’s what we need the Office of Space Commerce to do.”

He also wondered where the skilled workforce will come from. “Every year I’m turning away students that are U.S. citizens that want to get involved, because there’s not enough research support.” The National Science Foundation funds grants for basic research, but he said NSF doesn’t consider SSA to be basic research so that’s not an option.

“A lot of these companies that we’re talking about helping them thrive, where’s the workforce coming from? They’re hurting. Every day I’m getting people emailing me saying, hey, can you send over like a dozen students? I’m like, well, they’re not growing on trees. Like, where do I get them from? So this is a big problem that we need to fix.”

Jah urged Congress to specify a pool of money for SSA scientific and policy research.

In short, the hearing sounded as though it was the first on this issue rather than the most recent of many stretching back years and the subject of legislation that has passed at least one chamber of Congress.

Even the question of whether the Department of Commerce is the right civil agency for the job may not be as settled as it seemed. This morning, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson urged the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee to make a decision. Answering a question about NASA’s role in improving the ability to track small space objects, Nelson segued into the civil SSA question.

“One of the other things y’all have got to decide is who’s going to have responsibility for this? And I would encourage you to go on and get that done. It’s been talked about in the last administration that it should be the Department of Commerce. Others have said the Department of Transportation. I think there’s a lot of efforts down toward the Department of Commerce, but that’s your decision. And that will  help us if we can get our act together coordinating all the agencies in the federal government.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson

Time is marching on. In December, the White House National Space Council’s U.S. Space Priorities Framework asserted that the “United States will bolster space situational awareness sharing and space traffic coordination.” NAPA just published a new report in conjunction with MITRE offering a strategy for global space traffic coordination. International discussions on establishing norms of behavior in space to preserve it for future generations are ongoing.

Whether the 117th Congress will be able to agree on legislation to firmly and formally designate a civil agency to lead in this area is an open question.

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