NOAA’s Space Data Repository Takes a Step Forward

NOAA’s Space Data Repository Takes a Step Forward

NOAA’s effort to develop a space object data repository combining input from the government and commercial sources took a step forward today from pilot to prototype. Agency officials demonstrated this nascent version of an Open Architecture Data Repository for reporters. The goal is for the system to be fully operational in 2025.

Work on the OADR began in the Trump Administration after Space Policy Directive-3 put the Department of Commerce (DOC) in charge of interfacing with the civil and commercial sectors on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management — tracking objects in space and warning of potential collisions. DOD has been doing that for decades for all space operators, but as the number of countries and companies launching satellites expands along with the population of satellites and space debris, it wants to be able to focus on its own requirements, not everyone’s.

Steve Volz, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services and Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. Credit: NOAA

DOC assigned the task to a reinvigorated Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within NOAA, which is part of DOC. It took a couple of years for DOC to convince Congress it was the right place to do this work and get a funding boost to move forward. Kevin O’Connell, who served as Director of OSC from 2018 until the end of the Trump Administration, is given a lot of credit for getting as far as he did on the meager funds his office was allocated in FY2019 and FY2020. After a congressionally-requested report from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) endorsed DOC, appropriators agreed and increased OSC’s budget to $10 million for FY2021.

Efforts to elevate OSC out of NOAA and up to the office of the Secretary of Commerce through NOAA’s auhorization committees never succeeded, however. It is still under the part of NOAA that operates weather satellites, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).

Steve Volz heads NESDIS and is also the Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction. He and Scott Leonard, OSC’s Technical Director, provided a virtual demo of the prototype OADR this morning. The prototype was developed in partnership with the Aerospace Corporation, MITRE, MIT Lincoln Lab, and the University of Texas.

Volz drove home the need for greatly improved tracking and collision avoidance capabilities in space: “We have been largely concerned with the tens of thousands of inert space debris from the past, [but] the future may be dominated by active satellites. In fact, we expect on the order of 57,000 new satellites in orbit by the year 2030.”

The cloud-based OADR prototype has been tested against 20,000 space objects in collaboration with DOD, NASA and the commercial sector.

Presentation by Scott Leonard, NOAA Office of Space Commerce, February 11, 2022. Credit: NOAA

Several companies have their own space object tracking capabilities already. Leonard pointed out that the commercial sector actually has more sensors in the Southern Hemisphere than the U.S. government, improving “coverage in this region by over 50 percent” and that is expected to increase.

The prototype will provide operational SSA services including collision — or “conjunction” — alerts using data from government and commercial sources and “offer an interactive platform for academia, government and industry to innovate and promote new services.”

Volz said the goal is for the OADR to reach Initial Operational Capability in 2024 and Full Operational Capability in 2025. Today’s announcement is just a step in that direction, moving from pilot program to prototype. Volz said Requests for Information will be issued within the next week to further engage with industry. NOAA will also continue to work with DOD, NASA, FAA and others in the government.

Coordination is needed on “how we define the right space norms, the right operating principles, and the dialogue between the operators and the government and our service, and the operators and each other. That should be ongoing. That’s really the rich discussion to have over the coming … three years is how to define those space norms for operations of these densely populated constellations of operating systems.”

In October, the Senate Appropriations Committee said it was “extremely disappointed” with the pace at which this effort was proceeding. The committee stopped short of embracing the Trump Administration’s idea to elevate OSC to the Secretary of Commerce’s level, but recommended that it move out of NESDIS to report directly to the NOAA Administrator, who is the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. Currently that is Rick Spinrad.

Volz agrees that it needs higher visibility and authority within the Department and efforts are underway to make that happen, with details to come in the FY2023 budget request.

“We are in the process of coordinating … the organizational approach for the OSC at that higher level of visibility and authority. I can’t state what exactly that is. We have to work with the authorizing and appropriations committees in Congress. But we do expect this to get in. It has the highest visibility, daily, in fact, with the Under Secretary at NOAA and with significant interactions at the Department level. So there is a clear understanding that this must have that level of senior support and authority. And I think with the FY’23 budget in particular you’ll see some of the details of that reestablishment of the role and the primacy of OSC as a growing federal concern within the Department of Commerce and within NOAA.  I can’t go beyond that into details … but it clearly will get that higher level of visibility.”

O’Connell told by email this evening that OSC “does need to be elevated so that it can work seamlessly within the Department of Commerce, across the US federal government, and with our international allies and industry partners. I am very pleased that this discussion continues to move forward within the Executive Branch and in the Congress.”

Congress is still debating FY2022 appropriations so how much funding OSC ultimately will get for this year remains in limbo. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $20 million for OSC, twice the FY2021 level, but the House committee approved the requested level of $10 million.

Sen. Roger Wicker’s Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act also is pending. It would at least formally assign the civil/commercial Space Situational Awareness responsibility to DOC. The bill passed the Senate last year as part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, but there has been no action in the House.

Meanwhile, OSC itself still does not have a permanent director a year after O’Connell, a political appointee, departed on January 20, 2021, the last day of the Trump Administration. Mark Paese is acting director.

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