The February 2009 collision between an active Iridium satellite and a dead Russian satellite was a wake-up call to the world that demonstrated that space weapons and hostile activities in orbit were not the only, or even the most probable, threats to satellites and space-based capabilities.
Measures have been taken since to improve the tracking and warning systems to avoid collisions, but they are not enough. And these measures are still being managed and conducted largely by the U.S. military; the constraints of this approach are hindering progress.
As the country with the greatest reliance on satellites for national security and economic benefits, the United States realizes the dangers of collisions and large amounts of space debris. The United States also possesses the best space situational awareness capabilities, and in the aftermath of the collision was faced with either releasing the highly accurate satellite-location information maintained by the U.S. military so all satellite operators could calculate their own collision warnings or directing the military to provide a collision-warning service for all of the estimated 1,000 active satellites.
Largely because of the desire to control the information and hide some of its national security space assets, the U.S. government became the space collision warning agency for the world.
Three years later, the benefits and consequences of that choice are being felt. The close-approach warnings provided by the U.S. military to all satellite operators, numbering more than 150 a year, have greatly increased the visibility and awareness of the space debris problem and caused many satellite operators to become more responsible. However, everyone who enjoys the benefits derived from a space presence has become reliant on the U.S. military’s space situational awareness capabilities, which have not been upgraded to deal with the task they are now depended upon to perform.
The foundation of these capabilities is space surveillance, and in particular the production and maintenance of a database of objects in orbit and their locations. This database, known as a satellite catalog, is maintained by two computer systems that have been scheduled for replacement for more than a decade. Several programs to replace these systems have been proposed, announced, attempted and subsequently killed with few results.
A new report by the Secure World Foundation lays out the history of these failures and concludes that they are largely the result of the U.S. Air Force’s approach to space situational awareness as a purely military mission. The report recommends the United States take a more open approach to developing astrodynamic standards and space situational awareness capabilities that involve all stakeholders in the process, including satellite operators, foreign entities and the international astrodynamics research community.
The Secure World Foundation report goes further and discusses the two main challenges that were sidestepped in 2009 but need to be addressed now: the central role of the U.S. military in space situational awareness and the current policies for protecting the existence and location of certain U.S. national security satellites in orbit.
Developing the complex software needed to replace the legacy computer systems and providing a collision-warning service to all satellite operators, including commercial and foreign entities, is a task ill-suited to the U.S. military. Spinning off the catalog maintenance and collision-warning mission to a nonmilitary entity would allow for a more open approach to developing the necessary software and free up the military to focus on the aspects of the space situational awareness mission critical to national security, such as determining capabilities, intentions and threats to satellites in orbit.
It is also necessary to address why the U.S. military was made the collision-warning agency for the world after the 2009 Iridium 33-Cosmos 2251 collision — the desire to control the data and protect the existence and locations of certain U.S. national security satellites in orbit.
During the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet militaries were the only sources of space situational awareness data and there were few commercial satellites in orbit, such measures to control information were feasible. However, with the emergence of alternative sources of information, the large amount of data already publicly available on these satellites and the growing importance of the safety of spaceflight, such measures add complexity and development costs and create bureaucratic rigidity.
Tackling these challenges will also make it easier to work with all space-faring nations and space actors to improve space situational awareness for everyone. This is not a problem the United States or any one other country can solve alone. The cost and geographic coverage needed to track the hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris are more than any one country can handle, and those data need to be combined with owner-operator positions and planned maneuvers on active satellites to have a more accurate and actionable catalog. More important, the sources of data and analytical techniques used to produce collision warnings and other analyses need to be trusted by all parties.
Over the next few decades, potential collisions between space objects, radio frequency interference and irresponsible behavior will be more likely and dangerous threats than traditional concerns over space weapons and hostile activity. Adopting a more open approach to space situational awareness is the best way to leverage the best minds in government, industry and academia around the world to help meet these challenges.
By Brian Weeden, a technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation, Broomfield, Colo.