NOAA Seeks Industry Input on Commercial Space Object Tracking and Services

NOAA Seeks Industry Input on Commercial Space Object Tracking and Services

NOAA issued a Request for Information today seeking input from industry on data products, services and capabilities to support its Open Architecture Data Repository to provide Space Situational Awareness for civil and commercial space operators. NOAA demonstrated a prototype version of the OADR last week and said it was about to reach out to further engage with the private sector.

DOD tracks space objects and provides warnings of potential collisions — “conjunction analyses” — to everyone. As the number of countries and companies launching satellites escalates along with the number of objects being tracked, DOD wants to focus on its own national security requirements and hand the civil/commercial side of things over to someone else.

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

In 2018, the Trump Administration assigned that task to the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is part. NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) has been working on OADR since then. The goal is Initial Operational Capability in 2024 and Full Operational Capability in 2025, blending data from the government and companies like LeoLabs and ExoAnalytics that now operate their own space object tracking systems, and using that data to provide SSA services to non-military satellite operators.

Progress on OADR has been slow. Congress still has not authorized the Department to take on this new role through authorizing legislation. Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-MS) Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act passed the Senate last year, but there has been no action in the House. An earlier, broader bill, the Space Frontier Act, passed the Senate in 2018, but was defeated in the House.

Action has relied on appropriations bills instead and it was not until the FY2021 cycle that appropriators agreed to modestly increase the OSC budget to move the project forward after an endorsement from the National Academy of Public Administration.

Then, with the change in administrations and the departure of key personnel, progress slowed again. OSC Director Kevin O’Connell was a political appointee who had to leave at the end of the Trump Administration. Diane Howard, who was OSC’s General Counsel, and others were on term-limited contracts or temporary details from other agencies. Howard now is Director of Commercial Space Policy for the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Space Council, but after more than a year, OSC still does not have a permanent director.

In October 2021, the Senate Appropriations Committee said it was “extremely disappointed” at the project’s pace.

Steve Volz, Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and head of NOAA/NESDIS, said last week OADR has very high of visibility with NOAA’s Administrator, Rick Spinrad, who is the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and with higher ups in the Department. He conveyed that the FY2023 budget request will address organizational and funding issues.

Today’s release of the Request for Information is another step forward. It seeks information from companies on existing or planned commercial space object sensors and tracking services that will be available in the 2022-2030 time frame. Replies are due March 21, 2022.

In response to executive branch directives, and the Government’s effort to leverage commercially available data and services, OSC is seeking information from commercial satellite tracking providers on data products, services, and capabilities to support development of an Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR) for commercial space situational awareness. OSC’s primary interest is in commercial data sources to fill coverage gaps in existing government tracking assets.  The ability to track debris and other objects that are not currently well-tracked and the capability to track objects in the southern hemisphere are of particular interest.  Also of interest is the capability to task observation assets to refine orbit estimates of high-priority objects on an ad-hoc basis and the capability to track calibration satellites.  Information on both current capabilities and data sources that will be available in the 2022 through 2030 timeframe is desired.

The RFI is asking only for information. It is not a request for proposals, but for the long term the idea is that the Department of Commerce could purchase data from commercial operators to input into the OADR (that would also have DOD’s publicly available data), as well as commercial services or enter into public-private partnerships.

NOAA’s first foray into purchasing commercial satellite data to augment its own was for Radio Occultation (RO) data that improves the accuracy of weather forecasts. Congress directed NOAA to initiate a Commercial Weather Data Pilot program in 2015 and NOAA declared it operational five years later. Today, NOAA awarded a fourth Delivery Order for commercial RO data to GeoOptics and Spire Global.

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