Wicker Introduces Bill to Codify Commerce’s Role in Space Situational Awareness

Wicker Introduces Bill to Codify Commerce’s Role in Space Situational Awareness

The chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today introduced legislation to formally put the Department of Commerce in charge of providing Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data to civil, commercial and international satellite operators. A Trump Administration Space Policy Directive did that in 2018, but Congress has yet to codify it in law or provide the money to make it happen.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi)

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act to codify Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) that transfers responsibility for providing SSA data and conjunction analyses to non-military space operators from DOD to the Department of Commerce (DOC).

Conjunction analyses are warnings that two space objects might collide with each other.

The growing number of space objects, either operating satellites or space debris, is becoming worrisome especially in low Earth orbit. DOD tracks space objects and currently warns everyone of potential collisions, but it wants to focus on military requirements while another government agency interfaces with civil, commercial and international satellite operators.

There is broad agreement on that score, but debate continues over which agency should get the job, DOC or the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The Obama Administration preferred DOT, but did not make the transition. The Trump Administration instead wants DOC to take on SSA and eventually be in charge of Space Traffic Management (STM), a further step where satellite operators could be compelled to move their satellites much as air traffic controllers direct aircraft to change course. It is currently up to satellite operators to decide whether or not to move a satellite to avoid a potential collision, assuming the satellite has the ability to maneuver. No entity now has authority to force a satellite operator to do so and many factors must be weighed including the accuracy of the data and whether moving a satellite to avoid one object might put in the path of another.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is enthusiastic about taking on the SSA role and wants to create a Bureau of Space Commerce reporting directly to him. The Bureau he envisions would also regulate a wide range of other commercial space activities. He wants to begin by merging NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC) and Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs (CRSRA) and elevating them from NOAA to his office.

Authorization legislation to that end has met a variety of hurdles. The Bureau was part of the Space Frontier Act considered in the 115th Congress. It almost cleared Congress in 2018, but was doomed at the last minute by opposition to unrelated provisions. Legislation pending in the House and Senate for the past year and a half has made little headway.

Absent authorization legislation, appropriators have been reluctant to agree to the Trump Administration’s request to shift the money for OSC and CRSRA from NOAA to the Departmental Management account or to increase the amount. OSC and CRSRA each are typically funded at about $1.8 million per year, a total of $3.6 million compared to the $15 million requested for this year.

For FY2020, the Senate Appropriations Committee was irritated that Ross refused to send anyone to testify to explain why this action was needed. It required an independent study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to assess the pros and cons.

NAPA released its study in August, endorsing DOC as the right choice.  The House passed its version of the FY2021 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill before the report was released. It denied the funding increase and the shift from NOAA to Department Management. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on its FY2021 funding bills yet.

Wicker’s bill is a new effort to pass an authorization bill. Instead of the broadly-based  Space Frontier Act (S. 919), it focuses on this specific issue by —

  • Creating a Bureau of Space Commerce headed by an Assistant Secretary reporting directly to the Secretary of Commerce;
  • Authorizing the Bureau to provide SSA data, information, and services to, and obtain data, information and services from, non U.S.-government entities (States, political subdivisions of a State, U.S. or foreign commercial entities, and governments of foreign countries) as long as the entity agrees to pay an amount charged by the Assistant Secretary (with exceptions), not to transfer the data/information to other entities without permission of the Assistant Secretary, and any other terms and conditions considered necessary by the Assistant Secretary;
  • Providing immunity  from lawsuits for any cause of action arising from the provision or receipt of the data, information or service; and
  • Authorizing $15 million for FY2021.

Time is running out in the 116th Congress, so it will be challenging to pass the bill this year, but not impossible.

Release of the NAPA report and a growing sense of urgency may spur agreement. OSC is already working to create an Open Architecture Data Repository using DOD’s space object tracking data as a starting point, but progress is constrained by its modest resources.

Even NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel weighed in on the issue earlier this year. ASAP chair Patricia Sanders said the panel is “firm in its belief that the nation cannot wait any longer to aggressively act” and “dismayed” at the lack of congressional action. The panel cited the number of times the International Space Station has had to maneuver to avoid space debris as illustrative of the threat.

Wicker said today the legislation is critical for keeping low Earth orbit safe and protecting satellite infrastructure.

“Over the past two decades, space debris has created a dangerous environment for our astronauts and satellites in orbit. … The SPACE Act would empower the Department of Commerce to track this debris and issue collision warnings by leveraging its technical expertise and partnerships with the private sector. This legislation is critical to keeping low Earth orbit safe for exploration and protecting our satellite infrastructure.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) called attention to the legislation in a tweet, praising Senator Wicker for his leadership.


Note:  the original version of this article stated that CSF endorsed the bill, but CSF is still reviewing it.

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