Managing Risk and Liability in Space – Part Two

Last week I published a post  about how increased space activity was driving the need for rules that better define responsible behavior in the already-crowded frontier of space. 

In this post, my goal is to show how the private sector, working through the Space Data Association, is taking the lead in addressing these important issues, and how the U.S. government is not taking full advantage of a trove of information about objects in space. The Space Data Association (SDA) is an interactive repository for commercial satellite orbit, maneuver, and payload frequency information.  Founded in 2010 by the world’s leading satellite operators – Intelsat, Inmarsat, and SES – the Space Data Association seeks to:

·        Increase Safety of Flight. The SDA aims to preserve the space environment by rapidly and automatically sharing information about the positions of satellites in space.  Such information sharing helps preserve the space environment and greatly minimizes the possibility of accidents such as the Iridium/Cosmos collision in 2009.

·        Reduce Radio frequency Interference. Such interference – both intentional and accidental – is the number one operational problem facing communication satellite companies today. By sharing the precise location of commercial satellites and the configuration of their payloads, operators can more rapidly find and address interference sources.

·        Simplify Communication in a Crisis. Before creation of the SDA, the world’s satellite operators had no authoritative index of contact information for engineers on duty actually controlling the satellites.  Although there was always a great deal of informal communication, the SDA has standardized and automated the information necessary to communicate between technicians in operations centers during a crisis.

The Space Data Association concept has been received well and enthusiastically by the global satellite community.  Today, the SDA is performing collision avoidance monitoring for over 300 satellites.  In addition, SDA members are currently receiving the following benefits:

·        A reduction in false alarms, missed events.

·        Less time and resources devoted to conjunction assessment.

·        Common format conversions and a common information repository.

·        Radio frequency interference geolocation and resolution support, allowing operators to more rapidly find and address interference sources.

·        Constructive evolution of best practices for all global operators.

Although the SDA has made important progress in meeting the needs of private satellite operators, it has been less successful in sharing information with the U.S. Government.  The SDA has offered to augment U.S. Government sensor data with more precise operator-generated data to improve the accuracy of conjunction monitoring. 

The SDA could also provide a standardized method and focal point for operators to share information and facilitate communications between satellite operators and the Air Force, which is responsible for U.S. Government satellites in orbit.  At present, because of a range of policy, technical, and security concerns, the Air Force has not routinely accepted satellite position data from the SDA.  

By creating the SDA, commercial industry took a giant step towards accomplishing the Obama space policy goal of “promoting safe and responsible operations in space” and “improved information collection and sharing for space object collision avoidance.” 

The fact that the U.S. Government has been unable to fully capitalize on this industry sponsored and funded initiative undercuts the goals of the nation’s space policy.  Solving the problem of government/industry data sharing and the role of the SDA should be a key objective of those seeking to implement our nation’s space policy goals.

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