From the ocean to up above, NOAA is getting ready to monitor traffic in space

Late last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took a step forward in its plans to provide space traffic coordination services to commercial and civil satellite operators operating in the increasingly congested orbits around Earth. Now you may be wondering, just why is this falling under this particular agency’s purview? To get the answer, Federal News Network’s Eric White asked Richard Dalbello, currently the director of NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce, along with how...

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Late last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took a step forward in its plans to provide space traffic coordination services to commercial and civil satellite operators operating in the increasingly congested orbits around Earth. Now you may be wondering, just why is this falling under this particular agency’s purview? To get the answer, Federal News Network’s Eric White asked Richard Dalbello, currently the director of NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce, along with how this project came together.

Interview transcript:

Richard DalBello
The Defense Department for its own purposes many, many years ago, three decades, four decades ago, began a fairly comprehensive survey of the skies. That survey turned out to be, as time passed and as the industry, the U.S. satellite industry developed, it turned out that that information became valuable to the commercial sector. And now that we’ve had a huge growth in both the number of people involved in space and the number of commercial satellites, it’s more important now than ever. This happened at the same time that the Defense Department became more worried about the exploitation of space by adversaries of the United States, in many different ways. And so DoD said, we’ve been doing this for the commercial sector, where we’re essentially acting as space traffic control for the commercial sector. And that’s not a job that we see ourselves doing over the long run. And so that started a debate three or four years ago, a robust debate about who should do the task as a follow on to what DoD was doing. And the Space Council, reviewing this several years ago, said ‘we think it should go to the Department of Commerce.’ And so we were tagged with the responsibility for the continuity of the program that DoD started. Now I should say, as a sidebar, DoD doesn’t intend to go away, they’re going to be doing a lot in space, and probably more. And what they wanted to do was draw a line between what they call space domain awareness, and what we call space traffic coordination or space traffic management or generically, space situational awareness (SSA). So we are in the process of taking over that portfolio from the Defense Department.

Eric White
That term, space traffic coordination, is kind of what I wanted to zoom in on first. What does that mean to you? I mean, is it as simple as just keeping an eye on what’s going on up there? Or is it actually being proactive to make sure that there aren’t any mishaps or traffic jams?

Richard DalBello 
Yeah, I think that’s a good question. And you have to understand both the responsibility that we’re being given, but also the limitation, from a regulatory perspective, as to what we can do. What the Defense Department does now is simply alert operators that there’s a potential of a collision, which was referred to in the SSA jargon as a “conjunction message.” So a potential conjunction is when the probability that any two objects flying in space could potentially run into each other. And so what DoD does today, and what we will do at the inception of our responsibility when we take over will be essentially the same, which is we will say to operators, we will alert them to the possibility of danger. So this is of course, a far cry from what the [Federal Aviation Administration] does in air traffic control, where the FAA has the responsibility and the authority to direct. “You will go down to flight level 5000,” or “you’ll go into a holding pattern until we can land, until we it’s safe to land your plane.” So obviously, that authority does not yet exist. And if you stick with the analogy of air traffic control, this industry is in its infancy, and is probably equivalent to the barnstorming days of aviation when people built their own airplanes and flew them and traffic congestion really wasn’t anything like we see today. So over time, we’ll probably see a maturation in the role that government plays. But today that role is advisory.

Eric White
Gotcha. And so it requires a lot of commercial help to solve what may have been created from the large increase in amount of commercial space operators. What can you tell me about the help that you all are enlisting from the private sector as far as space traffic coordination goes?

Richard DalBello
Well, first of all, just to emphasize something you just said, which is that there has been a tremendous increase in the growth of satellites. Initially, although there have always been satellites in low Earth orbit, low Earth orbit being defined roughly three 400 miles from the surface of the Earth. Although there have always been satellites there, most of those satellites have been either for Earth imaging, or for other scientific purposes. And what we’ve seen over the past decade is tremendous interest in the commercial sector in exploiting the opportunities of putting constellations of satellites into low earth orbit. The technologies brought about by the micro miniaturization of electronics, and the tremendous realization of the ability to mass produce satellites, offering constellations in the hundreds or potentially 1000s of satellites. So there’s been a dramatic increase in what we’re doing. It just has been, there’s been a growth in the satellite industry, there’s also been growth in what we might call the SSA industry. So we’ve seen a bunch of new companies come on the scene, who not only offer analytical capability, but offer also new observations. So we see, for example, LeoLabs, using RADAR, is providing information on objects, both active and inactive objects in so-called space debris in low Earth orbit, and companies like ExoAnalytics and Slingshot [Aerospace], using optical tools and technologies offering new information about objects in geostationary orbit and beyond. So we’ve seen a tremendous increase in commercial interest in both doing the analysis, but also in providing the information, the current systems run using the Defense Department’s — it’s called the Space Surveillance Network, or SSN. And it is a combination of both high capacity radars and optical telescopes.

Eric White
So if DoD wanted to take a bigger role in the space, situational awareness arena, do they have that capability? I’m just curious if they could, or has it just gotten — as you mentioned the large increase in amount of commercial satellites — has it just gotten too much that they would require some outside help, such as from the companies you just mentioned?

Richard DalBello
I think your observation is definitely true that the responsibility has grown. Originally, when, I mean, the Defense Department was always a little bit reluctant to get pulled into this. If you think back in history, we have the example of GPS, right, where the military put up a system for their own use that ended up transforming the global, the way we all navigate, the way we all keep timing. So they they revolutionized the the art of navigation with GPS. But it didn’t require them to have hands on with the users of GPS, right? All they had to do is produce a quality signal. With SSA, the operators who were interacting with them actually had requests, demands, needs. seeking clarification, asking for additional improvements, such that DoD’s reaction to that was, ‘well hold it, this is beyond the scope that we can reasonably support. Not because we we couldn’t support it with a lot of money and additional people, but because we think it’s pulling us away from our core responsibilities and objectives in space domain awareness.’ So they saw it really as not being their mission, and they sought someone else to take that mission over. So it was a thoughtful process, on DoD’s part and that idea, the maturation of that idea, has been going on for well over a decade.

Eric White
Yeah, as far as timing goes. I wanted to ask you, in your opinion, should this maybe have happened a few years ago before the amount of space traffic increased exponentially to the point where some folks are even, as somebody who covers this, some folks are even putting out tons of columns and think pieces about how we’re going to have too much traffic in space, if we’re not careful.

Richard DalBello
Well, first of all, to that point, space is big. Okay, there’s an awful lot of it. So we’ve been putting up thousands of objects for the last six decades or so. And so far, we’ve only had a couple of collisions. Now, that’s not to say that we couldn’t have something disastrous. And of course, the United States, and particularly the Office of the Vice President has been pushing the initiative of getting countries to declare that they will not do [anti-satellite] testing in space, because that is a terrible creator of new space debris. So part of it, the long term vision is that we do need better SSA. But we also need better practices in building spacecraft, launching spacecraft, and dealing with spacecraft at the end of their useful life. So on the one hand, we need to get much much better at not creating debris. On the other hand, we need to put some work — and the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the White House has spent a great deal of time thinking about this this year, and last year — about what are we doing with the debris problem are there active debris removal — everything needs an acronym in space, of course, so ADR, active debris removal — are there things that we can be investing in that will lead to new solutions? So I think if you fast forward a couple of decades, you’re going to see better, pretty much improvement everywhere in the spectrum. One, better satellites and launch vehicles to reduce debris, better practices, in getting rid of satellites at the end of life. And I think you’ll also see technologies coming along, which will offer some parts of the solution to the debris problem. As you know, we have I think it’s over, — well, depending on how small you want to go down, well over 40,000 pieces of debris and active satellites in space now. And that number goes up dramatically. The smaller, the more capable you get at looking for debris, the more debris you find. So we need a new generation of technologies, both for SSA but also for active degree removal.

Eric White
Other than this new role, can you tell me a little bit about the Office of Space Commerce and what it does as far as regulating commercial space? It’s not something that everyone would think of immediately when you think of NOAA. But it is definitely part of the main mission when it comes to NOAA’s weather satellites, but now also expanding into this arena.

Richard DalBello
Right, the Office of Space Commerce actually goes back, believe it or not, the late 1980s was the first iteration of the office. And the office has been started out in the office of the secretary; it’s lived in different places within the Department of Commerce, currently comfortably residing in NOAA. And I think that’s a good fit. The Office of Space Commerce has three primary responsibilities. The first and oldest of its responsibilities is to be an advocate for the commercial space industry. In that advocacy role, which again started in the later days of the Reagan administration, if you can believe that. That role has been to be the voice of and the supporter of the commercial industry on complicated issues like export control, on complicated issues like U.S. acquisition practice, international engagement on behalf of our industry, both from a trade perspective and from a complicated perspective, because on issues like launch vehicles, you also have treaty responsibilities. So wherever the commercial sector’s been, the Office of Space Commerce has tried to be an advocate. And we’ve seen the industry grow from a handful of plucky entrepreneurs to a thriving global phenomenal business that that we see today. The second role is the role of regulator of commercial remote sensing. So if you think about how does the U.S. government regulate the space industry for launch and reentry of course, the FAA has the responsibility. For spectrum, for many decades the [Federal Communications Commission] has played a critical role. So the FCC is responsible for the coordination of spectrum both terrestrially and in space. But when the remote sensing industry came along, the question was ‘where’s the natural fit for that?’ And again, they decided Department of Commerce. So we picked up the responsibility for regulating all commercial sensing of the Earth. And we’ve had that responsibility for a couple of decades now. And now there’s a new debate, often referred to generically as mission authorization, which means who is going to be the regulator for everything else. So I mean, NASA is talking about commercial space stations, we’re talking about commercial activity as part of the Artemis mission to the moon, we now have new technologies like satellite refueling and satellite manufacturing in space, and who is going to be the U.S. government entity responsible for those things, and that is the debate that’s currently ongoing in the Space Council. And I believe that the Vice President intends to come to some sort of conclusion in the early spring on this, but we are involved as are the other agencies of the U.S. government, in a robust discussion of how best to manage all of this. And of course, we will also have a companion dialogue with our colleagues in the U.S. Congress, as this at some point will become an issue that they are also very interested in.

Eric White
Yeah, when it comes to those regulatory actions, I imagine authority has to be kind of talked about at the macro level. If you’re regulating just U.S. Space commerce, I mean, can you really regulate the whole entire atmosphere of middle and low Earth orbit when you know, if other countries want to do their own thing and not adhere to our specific regulations? What can you tell me about that?

Richard DalBello
Well, if you look to either the FAA, or the FCC, you can see examples of how the U.S. has come to grips with that problem. So on first principles, the way we have structured sort of global space economy, it’s a fairly fluid environment. So if a French company wants to come to the United States and set up shop, with some restrictions, they could get licensed and they could operate here. And reciprocally, we could probably do that in England. So there is a certain amount of fluidity. So if one country has rules that the commercial sector thinks are too burdensome, you could see a flight to other venues. So there’s always that in the back of I think any regulator’s mind is the idea that, particularly in space where the environment is so fluid, having regulations which are supportive of and which accomplish the government’s primary purpose, which are also supportive of the industry, having fluid regulations like that are important. So but if we look at the FCC and the FAA, you have examples of how the U.S. works through its domestic requirements and its international requirements at the same time. So FAA, of course, we have rules for flight that are coordinated through [the International Civial Aviation Organization (ICAO)]. We have rules for flight in the United States and then we coordinate internationally through ICAO to ensure that there are common rules that govern flight globally. Similarly, in the FCC, we have spectrum rules in the United States that govern the use of radio frequency, but then we also through the [International Telegraph Union] process have those same rules. So they can be consistent, both regionally and internationally, using the tools of the ITU. So on SSA, we aren’t there quite yet. Right now, the Defense Department is the only one that is routinely making SSA information available globally. Our colleagues in the European Union intend to start their own system in 2023. And we’re working with them. And eventually I think we’ll probably have multiple systems in the world and how all of those systems will coordinate with each other is still something that we need to work out. So exciting times, but a lot of work ahead of us.

Eric White
And just a final question here. I imagine that if the American space situational awareness, whatever the system is set up or the methodology set up, I imagine if it works well, it’s in other international space agencies’ benefit to work with it. Am I wrong?

Richard DalBello
That is, of course, our deepest desire, is that we wish, as we take the responsibility over from the Defense Department, it’s our desire to build a system, first of all, which is best in the world. Secondly, it’s easy to use for satellite operators. And thirdly, is widely adopted internationally. So those would be our objectives. And how we do that, at the moment, it’s our intention to try to use the greatest extent possible commercial capabilities that are existing. The Defense Department has done a great job and continues to do a great job. But there are lots of new companies and technologies out there. And we hope to take advantage of some of those, both to simultaneously increase what we can offer to the commercial sector in terms of space safety services, but also reduce the cost to the American taxpayer, which is a key consideration of ours. Just a couple of notes, there was a lot of interest in the pilot. We wanted to do something quickly that highlighted what was available commercially in the United States. And at Joint Task Force-Space Defense, Commercial Operations (JCO), they had a program up and running that was really focused, already focused on testing out new technologies, testing out new commercial technologies. And we approached them and they were incredibly receptive. And they already had this infrastructure all set up. So we brought a little bit of money and a lot of enthusiasm. And I think the really cool thing about the pilot is that it involves not just the new companies that are doing SSA observations or SSA analysis, but also the operators themselves. So we reached out to the space Data Association, which represents, I think, almost all of the big operators in geostationary orbit, and some of the other operators in other orbital regimes. And they were immediately responsive. And so we have this really exciting pilot program where we have operators producing real data. It’s not, none of this is is is canned. This is like real observations from real operational commercial satellites feeding to real companies that do commercial SSA. And so it’s all commercial. And as you can imagine, the first week or so was a bit chaotic as we had a whole bunch of people who had never worked together before suddenly trying to figure out how do they exchange data? How do they get results back? But we’re very excited that the outcome of the pilot will be a validation of a lot of new cool companies that are out there working validation of a lot of new data sources. And that I think, will bootstrap us as we go forward into the implementation of the Department of Commerce SSA system, which we do not see as a direct copy of what DoD is doing. But we see as an opportunity to look around the United States, look at all the exciting companies and exciting technologies, and kind of do a best of breed selection and move forward smartly into the future with better, more cost effective technologies.