Office of Space Commerce is reviewing options for a commercial SSA pilot in LEO

WASHINGTON — Having successfully completed a pilot project to coordinate commercial space travel, the Office of Space Commerce is considering opportunities to conduct a similar project in the more challenging environment of low Earth orbit.

Speaking at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference on Feb. 8, Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce within NOAA, said the office had just completed a two-month project to test the ability to generate space situational awareness in medium and geostationary Earth orbits with commercial data only.

The Office, in cooperation with the Department of Defense, awarded contracts for the pilot to COMSPOC Corp., ExoAnalytic Solutions, Kayhan Space, KBR, NorthStar Earth & Space Inc., Slingshot Aerospace and the Space Data Association in December. It also used data from five contracts the bureau awarded in September for situational awareness (SSA) data of commercial sites.

DalBello explained that while the office was still analyzing the results of the pilot project, things seemed to be going well. “I am very confident that we will have done very well,” he said. “The first results are looking really good.”

The goal, he noted, was to do at least as well as the 18 offersth Space Defense Squadron, currently providing space traffic coordination services. “We wanted to do SSA in GEO with no government data and just answering the question, could we do that?” he said. “I think the answer will be yes.”

The office is now exploring opportunities to run a similar pilot program in LEO. That will be more of a challenge, he argued, given the limited data available in LEO and the more congested environment there.

“The difference between GEO and LEO is the difference between living in the country and living in downtown DC,” he said. GEO is less crowded, with a smaller number of larger satellites, while LEO has many more objects in different orbits. “It’s just a dramatic difference.”

Another difference is the available data. “We don’t have the depth of coverage that we need” at LEO, he said, with fewer commercial providers. “We want better resolution than currently in LEO.”

These factors will weigh on any plans by the Office of Space Commerce to conduct a similar commercial pilot to coordinate space travel in LEO. “I’m sure we’ll do something. I’m not 100% sure if it will be a pilot like we did with GEO, but we will do a focused investigation with the LEO players.”

DalBello also called for greater international coordination, citing as an example a formal relationship with the European Union Partnership for Space Surveillance and Detection (EUSST), which is building an independent SSA capability in Europe. “It is absolutely imperative that there is an open dialogue about this type of information.”

These discussions are becoming increasingly important as more capabilities continue to emerge and the Department of Defense is no longer the sole source of SSA intelligence. “We have a big task ahead of us to make sure we can understand what other people are saying,” he said. “We’re literally building a Tower of Babel today, so the US is trying their best to find a striker for it.”

He singled out China as a country not cooperating with the United States and others on SSA for the time being. “We have an environment today where the Chinese don’t play,” he said. “They’re a major space operator, but they don’t share any meaningful data about where they are or what their satellites are doing.”

“That wouldn’t work in air traffic control and it won’t work in space traffic control,” he added. “We need all responsible operators at the table.”

ORBITS Act reinstated

As the Office of Space Commerce works to coordinate space travel, several senators have reintroduced a bill that addresses related issues, including active debris removal.

Senator John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) announced on Feb. 16 that he had introduced the Orbital Sustainability, or ORBITS Act. He was joined as co-sponsors by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Dianne Feinstein (D- Calif.)

The new ORBITS bill is similar to an earlier version introduced by Hickenlooper and others last September and passed unanimously by the Senate in December. However, the House of Representatives did not adopt it before Congress adjourned, prompting senators to reintroduce the bill in the new Congress.

The bill directs NASA to publish a list of in-orbit debris objects “that pose the greatest immediate risk to the safety and sustainability of orbiting satellites and orbiting activities,” and authorizes NASA to establish a debris removal demonstration program. The bill would allow government agencies to procure commercial debris removal services, update existing standard debris mitigation practices, and develop new practices for coordinating space traffic.

“It’s time for a major spring clean to protect our space operations from the dangerous threat of debris,” Hickenlooper said in the statement. He introduced and reintroduced the bill last year when he was chair of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, although he does not chair the subcommittee in the new Congress.

“Just last month, two Russian satellites collided to within 20 feet, which would have littered space with even more debris,” said Cantwell, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, referring to a Jan. 27 incident identified by LeoLabs, where the Cosmos 2361 spacecraft and an SL-8 rocket body approached an estimated six meters. “This law will spur the technology development needed to clean up the most dangerous debris before it disables a satellite — or worse, a NASA mission.”

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