Imagine that you are in a car, driving down the road on a clear and sunny day. In this situation, you can see what’s going on around you and can drive safely. Now imagine that the car’s windows are blacked out. Even if you have a GPS device that shows the car’s location, it would be extremely difficult to drive around safely because you have very little information about the situation outside the car.
This hypothetical example of limited situational awareness is similar to the way many of the satellites in space are currently operated today.
Nearly 60 countries and organizations operate about 1,000 active satellites in orbit around Earth. Additionally, there are more than 20,000 pieces of human-created space debris bigger than a softball (10 cm) in orbit as well, plus hundreds of thousands of pieces as small as a pebble (1 cm). All of these objects are moving at speeds of up to 15,000 mph (7 km/s). The owner or operator of a particular satellite usually knows the location of their satellite, but often has little to no information about the locations of other objects around their satellite.
This information about what’s going on in Earth orbit is known as space situational awareness (SSA). Providing better SSA so satellites can be operated safely is currently a big priority for both governments and commercial companies alike. Everyone who operates satellites or launches objects into space has a responsibility to do so in a safe manner.
Certain actions in space can have severe long term consequences and the actions of just one or two actors can potentially negatively affect all others. Unfortunately, most actors in space do not have the resources or capacity to provide the critical SSA information necessary to make safe decisions on how best to operate in orbit. This also hampers their ability to protect satellites from accidents or mishaps, such as a solar storm or a collision with a piece of debris.
Future plans for removing space debris and robotic servicing of satellites will only add to these safety challenges. And even more challenging is the ability for nations to determine the cause of a malfunction or failure of a critical national security satellite, whether it is due to the space environment, a manufacturing defect or an attack from an adversary. The inability to attribute cause or responsibility could lead to misperceptions, mistrust, or even spark conflict.
Some countries,such as the United States and Russia, have radars and telescopes to track objects in orbit, but they can’t track everything and the ability to share this information with others isoften limited by national security or military restrictions.
For everyone, including the United States, the costs of unilaterally creating excellent SSA are large and likely unaffordable in today’s world of austerity measures and constrained budgets.
Doing so would require one country to build and maintain a huge network of radars and telescopes spread out all over the world. A likely cheaper alternative would be to find ways to share data between the hundreds of existing sensors operated by dozens of countries. In recent years, largely sparked by the 2009 collision between the American Iridium 33 and Russian Cosmos 2251 satellites, SSA has been strengthened by several initiatives:
• The United States military is now providing close approach warnings to all satellite operators - including Russia and China - as part of its SSA Sharing Program. On average, the Joint Space Operation Center (JSpOC) provides information on 20 to 30 close approaches each day and in 2010, a total of 126 collision avoidance maneuvers were performed based on these warnings.
• Several commercial satellite operators have jointly created the Space Data Association (SDA), a non-profit organization that aims to standardize, compile, and share SSA data among its members to help prevent collisions and radiofrequency interference. The organization’s Space Data Center (SDC) achieved full operating capability in April 2011 and currently provides automated close approach warnings for more than 60% of active satellites in the geosynchronous region.
• The European Union has initiated a space situational awareness preparatory program to examine how best to fulfill Europe’s SSA needs. The program includes examining ways to use the existing SSA capabilities in several member States, potentially developing new capabilities, and possibly cooperatingon SSA capabilities with other countries and internationally.
• The International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), created in 2001 by the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, now has more than 25 scientific and academic optical telescopes around the world tracking space debris for scientific research and to potentially help avoid collisions.
These initiatives are all important first steps and have improved the situation, but they are not the final solution.
Solving the SSA problem requires governments, satellite operators, and others to work together cooperatively to find ways to provide all space actors with the information necessary to operate in a safe, secure, and sustainable manner so that everyone can continue to use space for its many benefits.
About the author: Brian Weeden is Technical Advisor for Secure World Foundation, and has over a decade of professional experience in the national and international space security arena. His wealth of technical knowledge and expertise has established him as a thought leader for providing critical analysis that supports development of space policy on a global scale.
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