USSPACECOM To Sign MOA with NASA Including Cooperation on Planetary Defense

USSPACECOM To Sign MOA with NASA Including Cooperation on Planetary Defense

U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) is getting ready to sign a Memorandum of Agreement with NASA.  NASA signed one with U.S. Space Force last fall, but this one will be operationally focused as befitting USSPACECOM’s mission. One area of cooperation among all three will be planetary defense — protecting Earth from asteroids and comets. Separately, NASA announced a slight delay in the launch of its DART planetary defense mission.

Lt. Gen. John Shaw

Lt. Gen. John Shaw, Deputy Commander of USSPACECOM, told the Washington Space Business Roundtable yesterday that he anticipates the MOA will be signed “within the next few months.”

It will be “more operationally focused” than the NASA-Space Force agreement, which is “more about capabilities and technology,” Shaw said.

The Space Force is one of the six military services (along with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard) whose missions are to “organize, train and equip” personnel.  USSPACECOM is one of the 11 unified combatant commands that fight wars utilizing personnel and equipment from the services.

The two are often confused for one another or thought to be the same thing. USSPACECOM was reestablished by President Trump in August 2019 after a 17-year hiatus.  USSF was created in December 2019 as part of the Department of the Air Force (similar to the Marine Corps which is part of the Department of the Navy) in the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

USSPACECOM is a geographic command. Its Area of Responsibility (AoR) is anything beyond 100 kilometers above Earth’s surface — basically the rest of the universe. Shaw joked that it is the largest AoR of all the combatant commands and “getting bigger all the time” since the universe is expanding.

That makes planetary defense and anything happening in cislunar space of interest.

Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine often spoke of planetary defense as one of the areas where NASA and the national security space enterprise already work together. NASA’s planetary defense effort involves locating and tracking Near Earth Object (NEOs) — asteroids and comets — that might be on a collision course with Earth. Space Force and USSPACECOM track satellites and space debris, so all have sensors looking out into the vastness of space.  NASA recently incorporated algorithms into a Space Force space surveillance telescope in Australia to help in its NEO searches, for example.

Shaw sees a role for USSPACECOM.  “Absolutely, I think we will want to partner on planetary defense. … The same technologies that we want and one can leverage to understand what’s going on in the cislunar sphere can be used to identity potential natural threats to the planet.”  All three organizations — NASA, Space Force, and USSPACECOM — will “team together on that particular mission set, which I think is an important one.”

A NASA spokesperson told that “NASA and USSPACECOM are exploring collaboration opportunities in several areas. An area of particular interest is enhancing cooperation that would support the agency’s long-standing planetary defense mission to detect, track, and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets. These discussions are ongoing and we do not have a specific timeline for concluding formal agreements.”

Coincidentally, NASA yesterday announced a slight delay in the launch of its next planetary defense-related mission, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) technology demonstration mission. One way to mitigate the threat from an incoming asteroid is to divert its trajectory through kinetic impact. DART is targeting Didymos, a small asteroid with a tiny moon, Dimorphous. DART will collide with Dimorphous while telescopes on Earth are looking to measure how much effect it has on the moon’s orbit. DART was to launch during a July 21-August 24, 2021 window, but now will wait for a secondary opportunity between November 24, 2021 and February 15, 2022.  The extra time is needed to be sure one of the instruments is ready and because of delivery delays for the solar arrays due in part to COVID-19.  The change in launch date will delay its arrival at Didymos in September 2022 by only a few days.


Note: This article was updated with NASA’s reply to our request for comment.

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