DOT Tells Congress It Can Handle Releasing SSA Data to CFEs if Authorized and Funded

DOT Tells Congress It Can Handle Releasing SSA Data to CFEs if Authorized and Funded

A new report to Congress from the Department of Transportation (DOT) concludes that it is feasible for a civil agency like DOT to take over responsibility from DOD for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to commercial and foreign entities (CFEs).  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been advocating for such a change to enable DOD to focus its SSA efforts on meeting military requirements while someone else, like DOT, handles non-military users.

Bridenstine was the chief House sponsor of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA).  Sec. 110 of that Act required DOT to study the feasibility of  processing and releasing safety-related SSA data and information “to any entity consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations of the United States.”   Today’s report satisfies that statutory obligation.

The report, written by DOT with concurrence from the Department of Defense (DOD) and in consultation with NASA, the Departments of Commerce and State, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Director of National Intelligence, summarizes past and present SSA arrangements, including the current “SSA Sharing Strategy.”   That strategy, adopted in 2014, established three categories of SSA information users:  the public, SSA Sharing Agreement Holders (commercial, government, and intergovernmental satellite owners and operators that have signed a formal sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command), and U.S. national security partners.

Today, DOD’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC, part of U.S. Strategic Command) continuously collects data about the location of the18,000 objects in Earth orbit.  The report says that only 7 percent of those objects are operational satellites.  The rest are debris — everything from intact, but non-functional, satellites to expended rocket stages to paint chips to remnants of damaged or destroyed spacecraft.

Global concerns about the debris created by in-space events were sparked by the 2009 accidental collision of an active U.S. Iridium communications satellite with a defunct Russian communications satellite and China’s 2007 intentional destruction of one of its own satellites as an antisatellite test.  Both created a lot of debris and with more and more satellites being launched, especially hundreds of tiny “cubesats,” SSA is increasingly vital to a growing number of users of the space environment. JSPoC calculates “conjunction analyses” to warn satellite owners/operators if objects pose a collision risk and issues alerts.

A civil agency like DOT, through the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), could assume responsibility for releasing safety-related SSA data on tracked space objects to non-military users under certain conditions, today’s report concludes.  The conditions include:

  • interagency collaboration, especially a strong DOT-DOD relationship;
  • passage of legislation specifically authorizing DOT to take on this role and providing the same immunity from lawsuits as in 10 U.S.C. Section 2274 for DOD’s SSA activities; and
  • providing additional resources for FAA/AST (a rough estimate of $20 million is provided in the report as an initial investment, with additional recurring costs for more personnel).

Bridenstine welcomed the report in a statement provided to

“This report shows that this Administration, including the Department of Defense, agrees with what I have been advocating for a long time: that FAA/AST is an appropriate agency to maintain space situational awareness and provide information and services to civil, commercial, and foreign actors. This will empower STRATCOM and JFCC Space to focus on fighting and winning wars, while a civil agency does routine conjunction analysis and reporting. I look forward to working with the DOD, FAA, and Congressional stakeholders to begin implementing such a framework.”

Bridenstine is also the primary sponsor of pending legislation, the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA), which would go even further and take the first steps towards designating a civilian agency, like FAA, to be responsible for Space Traffic Management (STM) under which a satellite owner/operator could be compelled to take action to avoid a collision.   Currently, JSPoC issues conjunction analyses, but it is up to the satellite operator to decide what to do, if indeed the satellite is capable of moving.  ASRA is very broad and Bridenstine makes clear he does not expect it to pass in its entirety.  Instead, it is a repository of provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation over time.

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