Little progress has been made in the two years since President Donald Trump issued directive ordering federal agencies to update the process for tracking objects in space, says Andrew D’Uva, the president of Providence Access Company, a technology and satellite consulting firm, and an expert on satellite regulations.
Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 in June 2018 to improve the technology used to track objects in space and update the guidelines for how to handle space junk. The most significant step sought to put the Commerce Department in charge of tracking objects in space and sharing the data with the public, a responsibility that now resides in the Department of Defense.
But that's effectively at a standstill. “The Department of Commerce, despite doing all this planning work, hasn’t been given full authority and resources from Congress to move out on the mission,” D’Uva says. “They had no budget for fiscal 2020.”
Reforming space traffic management remains a pressing policy challenge as space launch gets less expensive, orbits become crowded, and maneuvering a satellite can cause a major accident.
“We have to have a lead agency for safety,” said D’Uva, who is also a policy advisor for the non-profit Space Data Association. “We have to preserve the environment from an operational perspective. If you have satellites colliding and creating debris fields, that’s not good for anyone.”
D’Uva also spoke about how the government should look to industry to improve its space traffic management capabilities and why he''s confident the issue will be revived in an election year.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What progress has been made since the president signed SPD-3 two years ago?
The policy itself is really good. I think it was a great summary of an interagency process and an industry contribution process that led to a policy everybody could get behind.
What’s happened since then? There have been a number of regulatory proceedings. The FCC has advanced its debris mitigation guidelines and the Commerce Department, specifically the Office of Space Commerce that Kevin O’Connell leads, has been very active both internationally … but also domestically. … With respect to SPD-3 in particular, the Commerce Department has detailed people out to Vandenberg [Air Force Base in California], where the Defense Department activities take place for current space situational awareness support. … They’ve been on the ground there learning what the process is, including its limitations and challenges.
The Department of Commerce, despite doing all this planning work, hasn’t been given full authority and resources from Congress to move out on the mission. … They had no budget for fiscal 2020. The president’s budget does have $15 million for the Office of Space Commerce in fiscal 2021, which has been going through the appropriations process. They’ve been very active in speaking with appropriators, and have been contributing to a study that’s being undertaken by [the National Academy of Public Administration.] I spoke with the NAPA study team recently and they said they had interviewed over 100 people.
What is preventing the Commerce Department from taking action?
It’s a question of synchronizing the policy. … [Space Policy Directive 3] represents the administration’s view but of course Congress gets a say in terms of authorizing … whether they agree with the policy that the Department of Commerce should be the lead agency and gets a say in terms of the amount of funding. I’d say it was unfortunate that resourcing that activity did not occur for this year, but hopefully it will happen in fiscal 2021.
Why is it so important to improve space traffic management?
The US has been leading this area for a long time. They’ve used the Defense Department system to provide those services. Why it’s important we do a better job now is that access to space is changing. It’s so much easier to get access to space and the demand for space applications is increasing. The cost of launch has come down an order of magnitude. … So the use case in space has really improved.
That means that we have to do a better job understanding what’s going on in space and making sure those activities don’t interfere with each other or create long-lived space debris created by a collision. … To do a better job, we have to increase the cadence of the observations and the amount of information that’s shared with civil and commercial users. … We have to share more information with them and we have to receive more information from them.
In the past, it didn’t matter that much if a satellite operator was executing a maneuver. As space becomes more congested, if a satellite operator is making a maneuver that would change its orbit, which might bring them close to debris or another satellite, we need systems to take in that maneuver information, compute it and improve warnings to be timely and actionable.
What should Congress do?
After it concludes the study that’s being done now, which will be done in a month or two, Congress can look at that. … Hopefully the study will broadly say we have to have a lead agency that is not the Department of Defense, because the Defense Department has to keep doing its missions and this is not its primary mission. We have to have a lead agency for safety. … We have to preserve the environment from an operational perspective. If you have satellites colliding and creating debris fields, that’s not good for anyone.
We also need to fund this. The Defense Department systems and capabilities were not designed for nor are they optimized for this safety mission. They’re optimized for national security. … U.S. industry has come a long way and has the analytic tools and capabilities to process data and really derive information for space traffic management.
For a very low cost, you can have a great deal of highly accurate information. … The Commerce Department and U.S. industry can leverage the foundational space situational awareness activities that the government is already doing, add some commercial and academic capabilities, add in the ability to take in information from satellite operators … and end up with a sum that's much greater than the parts.
The Space Data Association, a nonprofit created by industry 10 years ago, pioneered taking owner info -- so where a satellite operator measures its own location -- … plus their planned maneuvers … and merging that together with the public catalogue which only the U.S. government puts out.… NOAA and NASA both signed up to be Space Data Association subscribers. They’re getting the best data the U.S. government could provide, but they’re still willing to pay a small commercial fee for this service. … We don’t have to reinvent that for the Commerce Department. They can look at U.S. industry.
Is there anything else the White House can be doing?
Obviously the administration has requested funds, so there’s that executive branch versus Congress process of obtaining budget and of authorization. I imagine they are pushing very hard to make that happen. That’s something they can do: to continue working with Congress to make sure everybody is on the same page and walking forward in the same direction.
Are you worried about this effort losing momentum in an election year?
The good news is once anyone in a policy-making position studies these issues about space traffic management and space situational awareness and what they mean for the country and the world, … everyone agrees we need to develop and have access to a system that provides timely and actionable information for safety. While I do think election year politics will cause people to maybe prioritize those [campaign] activities … I don’t see this particular initiative being politically engaged in any way. It’s common sense. A lot of work has been done.
I don’t know what will happen in the election, but even if there is a change of administration, I would expect the same kind of professionals in any administration … will come to the same conclusions. … It’s been studied a lot. The reason we created the Space Data Association was the Defense Department processes were not sufficient for commercial space.
We went as far as we could, but it turns out this should be a publicly provided service. … It’s just safety aids for space-faring objects, the same as lighthouses and buoys and GPS. I think we will look back in 20 years and ask why did it take us so long?