Establishment of a National Space Traffic Management Capability

Space, one of the Air Force’s domains to fly, fight, and win third continues to become congested, contested, and competitive at an exponential rate. With all the new space ventures like mega-constellations, active orbital debris removal, and human commercial flight, space has become a very difficult place to operate in. It is also a domain where space situational awareness (SSA) is no longer passive; meaning that we are no longer just tracking and making sure man-made objects are where they need to be.

It is becoming more complex when it comes to ensuring not only the safety of satellites but most importantly human spaceflight. “In the next eight years alone, an estimated 3,000 satellites are expected to be launched. For perspective, at the end of 2017, there were around 1,700 active satellites in space” (Harrison & Johnson, 2018). Another statistic by the Center for Strategic & International Studies stated that “if just half of the commercial space ventures are successful in the next 10 years, we will double the number of satellites put into orbit over the entire history of the space age” (2018).

This also includes the ~23,000 objects that are currently maintained in the space catalog (Brady, 2018). As modern technology and the use of space evolves, the Department of Defense (DoD) justifies that space functions they are responsible for, such as conjunction assessments and advisory notices, need to transfer to another agency. Therefore, the establishment of a national space traffic management (STM) capability would resolve this problem.

Currently, the 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California is a tactical and geographical separate unit of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado that performs the SSA mission.

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The SSA mission comprises updating and maintaining the space catalog, which is a database of third-order man-made objects that are currently in Earth’s orbit and space flight safety services. The space flight safety service is a combination of launch, collision avoidance, on-orbit conjunction assessment, an collision avoidance, human spaceflight support, re-entry, and break-up assessment, and launch support (Brady, 2018). The challenges that are occurring are the ability to balance the tasks of the space surveillance mission, theater support to the warfighter, and command and control of the space domain. There are several courses of action (COAs) that could help meet the demands of a national space traffic management capability: keep things just the way they are and let the 18 SPCS continue to operate as they do or relieve the DoD by transferring some or all of the SSA mission to another agency. Within each COA, second and third-order effects (STOEs) and risk mitigations will be identified.

For the first COA, the 18 SPCS should maintain the SSA mission as a tactical squadron and maintain the status quo. In doing so, U.S. and foreign agencies will continue to receive the most updated orbital data of their satellite promptly and upon request. In an interview with T. Livingston, a former space operator that assisted with space flight safety services for the 18 SPCS stated, “If a satellite payload met pre-screening conjunction criteria that the current crew performed, they must call that agency; even if they were foreign, and let them know that their satellite will have a close approach with another object. It would be up to that agency to determine what to do with the data provided. On the other hand, if an operator requested orbital data on their satellite, it was treated instead as a work order and put on a prioritized list.” (personal communication, 2 December 2018).

If U.S. and foreign agencies continue to receive the most updated orbital data of their satellite promptly and upon request, then the 18 SPCS will continue to provide space flight services and carry the hardship of notifying those external agencies daily. According to D. McKissock who is currently the SSA Sharing & Space Flight Safety Lead for the 18 SPCS noted that “there is a misperception that offering these services every day is an overwhelming task that’s draining their technical resources. It is currently run by 12 to 15 personnel and even with the latest increase of objects in orbit over the past three years, operations have not changed” (personal communication, 1 December 2018).

If the 18 SPCS continues to take on the difficult task of notifying external agencies daily then those agencies’ satellites will be safe and relationships that were built will continue to thrive. D. McKissock also states that having that direct link to external satellite operators and enabling their trust is critical. Such shared information that 18 SPCS receives from those operators allows the 18 SPCS to support other mission requirements such as launch planning. These are quid-pro-quo agreements that were established in the early 2000s (Smitham, 2010). The 18 SPCS does not have the power to order an operator to provide the necessary data, which is a downfall, especially for planning purposes. If a country is willing to share its launch paths and satellite information, then they are offered support from the 18 SPCS free of charge, which is a win-win situation for both parties (personal communication, 1 December 2018).

Besides having that direct link to external agencies, another benefit for this COA is that there are already personnel and processes in place to conduct the SSA mission that the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) has already enforced. If needed, any changes to those processes are transparent and implemented quickly. One risk is that as the satellite catalog continues to quickly grow, legacy weapon systems that are still used today to maintain and update orbital data for the entire catalog either need to be replaced or upgraded which could be a timely process. Currently, the mitigation for that risk is the creation of the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System (JMS) which is the next-generation system to the current Space Defense Operations System (SPADOC) system.

For the second COA, the 18 SPCS would transfer some or all of its SSA capabilities to another agency, specifically the Department of Commerce (DoC). The transfer of SSA capabilities in turn requires that DoC is properly staffed with the right personnel. For now, it will have to be an incremental approach. As part of the space flight safety services suite, the DoC should first take the on-orbit conjunction assessment capability because it is the mission area that directly relates to the foreign, civil, and commercial sectors which the DoC can have a direct impact. To address the personnel issue, the 18 SPCS could embed DoC personnel on their operations floor for the short-term and then grow the DoC’s capability once it has reached maturity. Another alternative is to have a DoC liaison at the 18 SPCS and a military liaison at the DoC to start the dialog on how to grow their capability (D. McKissock, personal communication, 1 December 2018).

Having the proper personnel in place to take on the SSA mission, gives the DoC the power to enforce regulations and proper practices that satellite operators must adhere to. This is something that the DoD does not have the authority to do. President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) National Space Traffic Management Policy, which was issued in October 2018 has nine goals and lays the foundation to make that possible (2018). The intent of the policy as a whole is for the DoC “to provide a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use, based on the space catalog compiled by the Department of Defense” (Harrison & Johnson, 2018). To meet the intent of the President’s policy, the 18 SPCS and DoC would work together to meet two of its nine goals. The first goal is to provide U.S. Government-supported basic SSA data and basic STM services to the public. The second goal is to improve SSA data interoperability and enable greater SSA data sharing (2018). Even though this policy was directed, it does not specifically address what basic level SSA functions would transfer from the 18 SPCS to the DoC as well as the solprossolos and cons of this solthe union.

With the DoC in place to enforce regulations and proper practices, it would free up the DoD to focus more of its time and resources on the “protect and defend” aspect that the DoD was tasked to originally do. General John Hyten, Commander of USSTRATCOM even stated that “space traffic management should be somebody else’s job” (Foust, 2018).

The DoC will take on the same risk that was previously mentioned in the first COA in regards to upgrades to the current legacy systems. One risk to the DoD that was not previously identified for this COmanagement forA is no longer having the direct link to external agencies to collect data that supports other SSA mission sets. Instead, the 18 SPCS will have to retrieve that information manually from the DoC which can be anthe time-consuming. Another risk is the creation of new regulations and standards that the DoC and other agencies need to develop if they do not adopt what the 18 SPCS already established. It would be best to start with what has already been established, then gradually adjust the processes as the DoC’s capability matures.

The establishment of managementfor majority enforced STM capability at the DoC is the most logical concept. Not only does the SSA’sto responsibility shift from the DoD to the DoC, but it now belongs in the right agency that can foster national change. Personnel is the biggest risk because traffic fo formajority the of the experience already lies with the DoD. However, the DoC will establish greater control on regulations as well as enforci,g them, and is going in the right direction by taking positive steps forward with an interim solution on what space traffic management should look like on an international stage.

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Establishment of a National Space Traffic Management Capability. (2022, May 08). Retrieved from

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