New Regs for Commercial Remote Sensing Almost Ready, But Space Launch Must Wait

New Regs for Commercial Remote Sensing Almost Ready, But Space Launch Must Wait

The National Space Council got updates yesterday from the Departments of Commerce and Transportation on their efforts to streamline and modernize regulations for the commercial space sector.  Commerce regulates commercial remote sensing satellites and the new regulations are close to being ready.  Transportation is in charge of commercial space transportation services and those revised regulations will not be finalized for another year, however.

The Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, held its sixth public meeting at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA yesterday.  The Council is composed of the heads of departments and agencies that have a stake in U.S. government space activities who report at these meetings on their progress in fulfilling assignments from the four Space Policy Directives (SPDs) issued by President Trump.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) are working on tasks under Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2), which addresses regulatory reform, and SPD-3 on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM).

Steven Bradbury, General Counsel, DOT, speaking to the National Space Council, August 20, 2019. Screengrab.

DOT General Counsel Steven Bradbury represented DOT in lieu of Secretary Elaine Chao.  The comment period on its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for modernized commercial space transportation regulations just closed on Monday.  Bradbury said comments were received from “dozens” of companies, organizations or individuals.

The draft regulations are controversial.  Commercial Spaceflight Federation president Eric Stallmer told a congressional committee last month that they “in some ways are worse than today’s obsolete rules.” At that hearing and in a press release Monday, he urged DOT to release a supplemental NPRM, publish missing Advisory Circulars, “and engage in a productive dialogue with stakeholders” before issuing a final rule.

Bradbury said DOT is digesting all the comments and will be “hard at work” over the next several months to “address concerns and consider potential revisions to improve the final rule.”  Their goal now is to publish a final rule by “early fall of next year,” more than a year away.

Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, speaking to the National Space Council, August 20, 2019. Screengrab.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told the Council that he expects new commercial remote sensing satellite regulations to be finalized by October.  Companies launching satellites that can see any part of Earth must get a license from DOC.  The industry has mushroomed in recent years as more companies launch more satellites to observe features on the Earth and sell the data.

A major rationale for regulation is that public availability of certain data could imperil U.S. national security interests.  The tug of war between DOC’s interest in ensuring U.S. industry can compete on a level playing field with foreign sources of such data and the national security community’s concern about revealing information they do not want shared has complicated the commercial remote sensing satellite business for decades.  Especially vexing to companies is that DOD can hold up a license application indefinitely, or reject it without explaining why or what the company could change to win approval.  The new regulations will attempt to resolve those issues

Ross also briefed the Council on progress on other SPD-2 tasks.  Efforts are continuing to establish a Bureau of Space Commerce within the Department to be a “one-stop shop” for commercial space companies dealing with the U.S. and foreign governments.  Congress must pass legislation to create a new Bureau.  A bill, the Space Frontier Act, almost got through Congress last year, but was defeated at the last moment for unrelated reasons.  Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate this year, but there has been little action so far.

An Office of Space Commerce has existed for many years and is currently part of NOAA.  Ross wants to elevate and expand it into this new Bureau.  Headed by Kevin O’Connell, the office is already tackling tasks assigned by the SPDs, including SSA/STM.  The Air Force tracks objects orbiting Earth and issues collision warnings (“conjunction analyses”) to the relevant satellite operators if any get too close to each other. The task is becoming increasingly resource intensive with the growing number of satellites and pieces of space debris to be tracked and burgeoning number of satellite operators.  The Air Force wants to focus on military requirements and let a civilian agency deal with everyone else.  SPD-3 directed DOC to be that civilian agency, but others think DOT is a better fit.  Which agency should be in charge is one of the issues being debated in Congress as part of the Space Frontier Act.

DOC is proceeding nonetheless.  Ross announced yesterday that Mark Daley is leading DOC’s “Landing Team” at the Air Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base where this work is currently done.  Ross added that DOC is developing an Open Architecture Data Repository that will allow it to provide conjunction notifications to the commercial space industry in the future.

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