Space Debris Efforts Making Progress in the Administration and with House Appropriators

Space Debris Efforts Making Progress in the Administration and with House Appropriators

The House Appropriations Committee is on the verge of quintupling funding for NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce and elevating its position within NOAA as requested by the Biden Administration. Though still short of the expansive plans once envisioned by the Trump Administration, it is an important step in bringing resources to bear to address space debris. At the same time, OSC Director Richard DalBello said last week that a Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Commerce and DOD to implement Space Policy Directive-3 should be completed this summer.

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2023 Commerce-Justice-Science bill tomorrow. In its draft report released today, the committee approves the $87.7 million requested for OSC, up from $16 million, and asks for quarterly updates on progress toward getting OSC’s Open Access Data Repository (OADR) ready.

The OADR will combine data from government and commercial sources on what objects are in orbit around Earth, where they are now and where they are going — Space Situational Awareness (SSA). That allows “conjunction analyses” to be computed so satellite operators can be warned of impending collisions and take action to avoid them. OSC’s goal is for Initial Operational Capability of OADR in 2024, but has struggled to get necessary funding from Congress.

Graphic of objects in low Earth orbit (within 2,000 kilometers of Earth’s surface) as of January 1, 2019. Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office.

DOD does all of that now, but with the number of satellites and amount of space debris growing every day, it wants a civil agency to take responsibility for interfacing with non-military satellite operators so it can focus on its national security priorities. Gen. Jay Raymond, who heads the U.S. Space Force, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 3, 2022 that in just the past two years the number of objects being tracked has grown from 22,000 to the mid-40,000s and the number of active satellites from 1,500 to almost 5,000.

In 2018, the Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive-3 designated the Department of Commerce as that civil agency. Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross delegated the task to OSC, a tiny ($1.3 million per year) office within NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services (NESDIS) division. Ross had grand plans to expand OSC into a Bureau of Space Commerce reporting to him, but Congress was very cool to the idea. Four years later, congressional authorizers still have not passed legislation formally adding SSA to Commerce’s duties and a recent House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing illustrated the breadth and depth of questions still in play.

Appropriators, especially in the Senate, began to warm to the idea after a 2020 report by the National Academy of Public Administration, but even then provided only very modest budget increases and did not approve moving OSC to a higher level within NOAA, never mind to the Office of the Secretary of Commerce as Ross proposed.

The Biden Administration took more than a year to embrace Commerce’s role, but finally did in the FY2023 budget request and soon thereafter appointed a new OSC Director, Richard DalBello. The position had been vacant for 15 months since the end of the Trump Administration

House appropriators also now are on board.

It’s only one step in the lengthy appropriations process, but is the strongest show of support from this committee so far.

Speaking virtually at the 4th Summit on Space Sustainability in London last week, DalBello outlined the progress the Administration is making and the long road ahead.

Richard DalBello, Director, NOAA Office of Space Commerce, speaking virtually at the 4th Summit on Space Sustainability, June 22, 2022. Screengrab.

DalBello has substantial expertise in this area. He is credited with leading creation of the Space Data Association in 2009 when he was at Intelsat.

SDA started with the three major commercial satellite operators at that time, Intelsat, Inmarsat and SES, sharing data on their satellites’ positions because they couldn’t effectively work with DOD. Andrew D’Uva, SDA’s Senior Policy Adviser, told the House SS&T committee in May that the number of participants has grown to 30 and they operate their shared data catalog though a U.S. company, COMSPOC, “without government funds.”

At last week’s summit, sponsored by the Secure World Foundation and the U.K. Space Agency, DalBello harkened back to the origins of the SDA and how the fundamental issue of how satellite operators can “effortlessly talk to each other” remains.

In the few weeks he’s been in his current role at OSC (he previously was director from late 1988-1991), he said he’s been on a listening tour with all the SSA providers to get ideas on how to “manage this process.”  A major difference between now and 2009 is that several commercial companies now have their own SSA systems to track space objects and offer services to satellite operators in addition to what DOD provides through its public website.

A milestone will come this summer when DalBello expects a Memorandum of Understanding to be signed between DOD and Commerce to move forward with implementing SPD-3.

On top of getting the OADR ready, he had a long list of issues to be resolved from setting standards to rules of road “and then we probably need to have a pretty frank discussion about operator responsiblities.” Operators are willing to “share their preferences … [but] should there be things operators are required to do?”  He cited a 2020 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) document as laying out “a bunch of really complicated issues about operator responsiblity.”

OSC absorbed NOAA’s Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs as part of its evolution over the past four years and the question remains as to whether it should expand further along the lines of Ross’s proposed Bureau of Space Commerce. Right now, the United States does not have a regulatory agency overseeing its obligations under Article VI of the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty. The FAA regulates commercial launch and reentry, the FCC oversees assignment of radio frequencies for commercial users, and OSC regulates commercial satellite remote sensing.  Anything else commercial companies do in space is not regulated even though Article VI requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of non-government entities.

The debate over which agency should do that had been ongoing for years and is taking on added urgency as satellite servicing, commercial space stations in Earth orbit, and commercial operations on the Moon, not to mention companies like Astroscale that want to remove space debris, grow closer and closer. Some favor the Department of Commerce, others the Department of Transportation’s FAA.

DalBello said his office is in discussions with the White House and “eventually” will be with Congress as to whether they should take on Article VI responsbilities. “That’s a dialogue will we have in the future,” but the focus now is the transition of civil/commercial SSA from DOD.

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