Office of Space Commerce Seeks Budget Boost to Accelerate SSA Work

Office of Space Commerce Seeks Budget Boost to Accelerate SSA Work

The Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce is seeking a significant budget boost for FY2021 to accelerate its work on space situational awareness (SSA). The head of that office, Kevin O’Connell, told a Senate committee today that his office wants $15 million for FY2021.  For FY2020, it received $2.3 million.  Other witnesses today and at a House hearing yesterday emphasized the critical need to deal with SSA and mitigation of space debris to ensure a sustainable space environment for government and commercial use.

SSA essentially means knowing where space objects are and where they are going.  DOD tracks space objects using ground- and space-based sensors and calculates “conjunction analyses” that warn of potential collisions.

Kevin O’Connell, Director, Office of Space Commerce, Department of Commerce, at Senate Commerce Committee hearing February 12, 2020. Screengrab.

The task is increasingly difficult with the burgeoning number of satellites and pieces of space debris orbiting Earth.  Currently DOD is tracking about 2,200 active satellites and 20,000 pieces of debris — dead satellites, rocket stages, and fragments from accidental explosions of rocket stages, antisatellite tests like China’s 2007 destruction of one of its old weather satellites (3,000 pieces), or previous collisions like that of the U.S. Iridium 33 and the Russian Kosmos 2251 in 2009 (2,000 pieces).  Thousands more are too small to track.  Travelling at 17,500 miles per hour, even a tiny object can pose a catastrophic threat.

That means trouble for government and commercial space activities as interest in space exploration and demand for space services like broadband Internet and GPS reaches new heights.  Promises of a trillion dollar space economy could be imperiled if Earth orbit becomes unusable.

For several years, DOD has been trying to transition responsibility for warning commercial and international satellite operators of potential collisions to another government agency so it can focus on military requirements.  During the Obama Administration, the FAA was at the top of the list to take on that role, but the Trump Administration assigned it to the Department of Commerce (DOC) instead in Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3).

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross designated the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), part of NOAA, to take on the task, but he has even bigger plans for his Department in space activities and wants to elevate OSC out of NOAA and become the nucleus of a new Bureau of Space Commerce reporting directly to him.

Congress has not approved either creation of the new Bureau or DOC taking on the SSA role for non-military users.  The Space Frontier Act would do that, but it was defeated for unrelated reasons in the 115th Congress.  It was reintroduced in the Senate last year and approved by the Senate Commerce committee in April, but there has been no further action.

A House bill also has been reintroduced in this Congress, but there has been no action on it although the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee’s Space Subcommittee held a hearing on SSA yesterday.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, Secure World Foundation, at House Space Subcommittee hearing, Feb. 11, 2020. Screengrab.

Witnesses at the House hearing and today in the Senate raised the alarm about the need for the United States to deal with space debris and SSA.

The most pressing issue is deciding what government agency will have that responsibility according to testimony at the House hearing.  Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation said “all the other issues on improving the technology, improving the coordination, all hinge on that policy question. … That transition of the civil SSA responsibility to wherever it’s going to go and making certain it happens in a smooth way is the most important thing.”

Absent authorization legislation on the wherever question, the only congressional decision making is happening through appropriations.  For FY2020, Ross proposed merging OSC and the Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA), another part of NOAA that regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, combining their individual $1.8 million budgets and adding $6.4 million, for a total of $10 million, and elevating them out of NOAA into his office and the Departmental Management budget account.

Appropriators disagreed, largely because DOC did not provide any witnesses to explain why that is a good idea.  Instead, they gave OSC $2.3 million, a $500,000 increase to partially pay for an independent review by the National Academy of Public Administration to answer that question.  That left OSC in limbo.

DOC has not yet posted its FY2021 requests for NOAA or the Departmental Management account, even though the requests for all other parts of DOC are publicly available.  O’Connell’s mention today of the $15 million request for his office is the first indication of what DOC is proposing.

Meanwhile, O’Connell’s OSC is proceeding based on SPD-3 with the limited funding it has available.  Its focus right now is creating an Open Architecture Data Repository (OADR) that ultimately will provide conjunction notifications for commercial and international participants.  O’Connell promised that the OADR will use modern technology and business approaches, yielding better services than what is now available.

Illustrative of the situation, on January 29, two dead U.S. satellites came very close to colliding with each other over Pittsburgh.  In the end it was a near-miss of about 60 feet, but the incident raised awareness of the current system’s shortcomings as well as the emergence of commercial companies that are providing their own SSA services.

According to O’Connell, that near-miss was just one of five close approaches that day.  Since DOD’s mission is to monitor threats to active satellites and the International Space Station, not dead satellites that have no ability to maneuver, it did not initially assign assets to monitor the situation.  Instead, it was a company, LeoLabs, that warned of the event.

LeoLabs is not the only non-government entity tracking space objects.  Other companies and universities are doing it as well.  Also testifying at the Senate hearing today was Moriba Jah, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.   He asserted there is no agreement on what is in orbit and where.  He pointed to a searchable, crowdsourced space traffic monitoring website and app he developed, AstriaGraph, that combines data from multiple independent sources of information. His written statement includes illustrations of what the population of space objects looks like based on his crowdsourced data versus U.S. DOD data versus Russia’s public catalog.

His message was that foundational research must be done to get data that is good enough for these conjunction analyses to have any value.  One complaint is that companies receive incessant warnings of potential collisions.  Because there are so many false alarms, satellite operators sometimes tune them out.

“We in academia are ready to do the research” needed to get reliable data, but funding is needed to do that.  He said he has to turn away graduate students who want to work on this problem because he cannot pay them.

Moriba Jah, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, at Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Feb 12, 2020. Screengrab.

“We’re very ignorant of what’s happening in space” because the “domain as a whole is poorly monitored.”  Furthermore “we don’t have a taxonomy or classification scheme. … Kayaks and oil tankers are treated differently on the oceans, but in space it’s like everything’s the same thing.”

International rules of the road are also needed.  O’Connell pointed out that the Scientific and Technical subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is meeting right now in Vienna and this is one of the topics.

On the domestic front, however, neither hearing provided any clues as to when Congress will decide on whether or not to give DOC formal authority to take on the SSA role for non-military users. House SS&T Space Subcommittee chair Kendra Horn (D-OK) said her hearing was the first of several that will look into these issues, while Ranking Member Brian Babin (R-TX), who chaired the space subcommittee when Republicans controlled the House, reminded everyone that a number of hearings were held at that time.  Indeed, the House committee approved legislation that would have given DOC that role, but over the objections of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), then the Ranking Member of the committee.  She argued that the FAA should be in charge, which is what the Obama Administration concluded.  She now chairs the committee.

Daniel Oltrogge, founder and Administrator of the Space Safety Coalition and chair of the Space Governance Task Force of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), told the House committee that his Task Force did a study of space traffic management governance that found “there is a fabric, a continuum of space governance out there.  People like to say what’s the right answer …  but there are many instruments out there and we need to get comfortable with employing all of those instruments … to get where we need to go.”

Weeden agreed.  “There is no agency that stands out as the clear favorite.  Several possibles, all have pros and cons, all could probably work. That makes it a little bit harder because there’s no clear answer.”

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