Remarks from AMOS Conference 2020

Kevin O'Connell

Kevin O’Connell, Director of the Office of Space Commerce, spoke about space situational awareness at the 21st Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Conference, held virtually. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Greetings and Aloha to everyone in the AMOS Community!

Like everyone, I am really sorry that we are not gathering in Maui this year. Many of us are missing the warm, gentle breezes and the inevitable look into the beautiful night sky. Not to mention the friendly Hawaiian hospitality and the spirit of collaboration that transcends AMOS. So a warm Mahalo to the Maui Economic Development Board and the other sponsoring organizations for moving ahead with this year’s virtual event.

It has been an interesting year for the space community. Like all other industries, the space industry has felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic yet shown considerable resilience in the process.

  • Companies both big and small have felt the impact
  • We need to remind ourselves that many of the space industry’s contributions in helping mitigate the crisis are based on past investments in space
  • One of the most promising signs is that entrepreneurs continue to come forward with bold new ideas for growing space commerce.

You’ve heard me talk before about the trillion-dollar space economy, not only to advocate for it, but also to identify the key ingredients that will be necessary to reach that economy. We could focus on the state of entrepreneurship, the supporting finance and insurance ecosystem, the importance of regulatory reform, or the need for talent, all of which will be key.

  • While the overall space economy saw modest growth in 2019, what’s important is what is going on “under the hood” … we’re seeing productivity gains in various market segments, declining launch costs, and the growth in volume and diversity of remote sensing information that helps us understand developments on Earth. Over six billion navigation devices help us move efficiently in our neighborhoods and around the planet.
  • Numerous studies highlight the impact of space on our daily lives. One industry study assesses over $5T in economic impact in the US economy alone in areas like internet access and financial services, communications, navigation, and weather, and others. Most of us participating virtually in AMOS this year are either connected through space or using connections made more efficient through the use of space services!

However, the key ingredient that this AMOS audience focuses on, of course, is keeping space safe and sustainable. This is a problem that has gotten much more recognition this year. We’ve had another interesting year, both in terms of developments in space but also in our work at the Commerce Department implementing our parts of SPD-3.

  • The space environment continues to grow more complex as the cadence of activities accelerates and new space missions emerge. That pace of innovation demands that we pay increasing attention to space safety.
  • We have had an interesting year in terms of uncomfortably close approaches, uncontrolled rocket body flights and other space debris concerns. We’ve even seen the continuing fragmentation of historical debris that creates new hazards.
  • So we continue to see the serious risk of harm to the Astronauts aboard the International Space Station, the billions of dollars invested in current space capabilities, and the growth of space commerce. Space debris could potentially reverse some of the commercial efficiencies that are fueling the growth of space commerce.

How should we deal with this problem? Space Policy Directive-3 offered an unconventional approach and a set of goals and standards that are still in force today. I am pleased that the Congressionally-mandated study by the National Academy of Public Administration, or NAPA, validated that approach and the technical capabilities of the Department of Commerce as key to the solution. Let me spend a moment on this.

NAPA recognized the unique opportunities for civilian space traffic management and offered an operating model helpful to many of the activities already being undertaken by my office. Following six months of intense study involving over 100 government, academic and industry experts, many of whom are participating here at AMOS, NAPA determined that “the Office of Space Commerce is best suited to perform STM tasks within the Federal Government.” That evaluation was performed by a dedicated study team, but also the inputs of a senior panel led by a former acting Secretary of the Air Force and DoD executive agent for space, a former D/NRO, a former NASA Administrator, a former senior State Department Official, and the director of the National Center for Digital Government at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. We were fortunate to have the involvement of these dedicated professionals.

NAPA focused on the “urgent need” to move quickly in the face of the space debris challenge. They recognized our approach as a coordinator, convener, and as a data manager, as opposed to a “space traffic manager.” NAPA also recognized the peril of creating a large bureaucratic structure, preferring OSC’s stated collaborative model with a wide range of national and international actors. NAPA’s own operational model includes ideas for public-private partnerships, market-driven data management, and international cooperation that will serve as an important guide to our OSC’s efforts going forward.

Finally, NAPA recognized the need for OSC to continue to work with DoD, NASA, and the FAA’s AST, especially as the latter’s regulation of launch and reentry efforts grow quickly. As with other National Space Council-directed efforts, this “whole of government” approach will be necessary to leveraging technical and other resources in support of this mission. These are the same sentiments highlighted in the National Space Council’s July 2020 strategy entitled “A New Era for Deep Space Exploration and Development” to enable a secure and predictable space environment, and a necessary condition for the development of commercial activities in space.

With that as backdrop, let me bring you up to date on some of the internal, interagency, and international activities that I mentioned to you at AMOS last year, consistent with SPD-3, and many acknowledged explicitly by NAPA.

First of all, we focused on leveraging internal resources at Commerce related to this mission. There are so many of them. NOAA’s round-the-clock work protecting the largest civilian fleet of weather satellites in the world, and its stewardship of the space weather function, are just one example. NIST’s excellence in cybersecurity, standards evaluation, and other areas will facilitate our understanding of the space environment and many other technical areas pertinent to the future of space operations. NTIA’s work on spectrum and policies related to radiofrequency interference, including its relationship with the FCC, will help avoid another aspect of space congestion. Starting last Spring, my office has led an interagency working group designed to help gather technical and economic assessments to inform the FCC’s orbital debris rule-making effort in the hopes of minimizing regulatory burden on industry while improving space safety.

Most importantly, the Department’s core competency as a “data agency” in areas like economic statistics, census data, weather and space weather data allows us to leverage expertise related to data collection, storage, analysis and curation, and public dissemination. The Department’s mandate under SPD-3 to provide conjunction notifications and other basic information to private sector and international actors will draw heavily on the warning and public notification approaches from NOAA and throughout the Commerce enterprise. We are convening an internal Commerce technical advisory board to help us refine the next level of detail in the open architecture data repository, or OADR. More on that in a minute.

Our partnerships with the Department of Defense and with NASA have grown deeper. We recently hosted General James Dickinson, the new Commander of U.S. Space Command, at Commerce, and General Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations and I had a chance to explain our collective plans during the Seventh US-Japan Comprehensive Space Dialogue in Tokyo in late August.

For those of you who are wondering about the division of effort with DoD, think about it this way: space situational awareness is about location and safety, space domain awareness is about understanding additional details like capabilities and intention associated with space activities. The DoC-DoD relationship is already engaged at many different levels, from Secretary Ross and General Raymond here in Washington, D.C. to our Commerce colleague Mark Daley at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. We are currently drafting a Memorandum of Understanding with DoD in order to detail our transition over the next couple of years.

NASA, starting with Administrator Bridenstine, but extending to our collaboration here in the interagency in Washington, has also deepened. The NASA Centers at Goddard and Ames, have been incredibly helpful in evaluating our technical approaches to conjunction assessment and for our initial OADR architectural concept.

OSC’s work also continues with our other federal partners like the State Department and FAA, mainly around the international guidelines and supporting cooperation that will be essential to space safety. We have supported the implementation of the long-term sustainability guidelines at the UN with a view toward the growing role of the private sector in space.

Our efforts on standards continues with FAA and others: we are working with organizations like the Space Safety Coalition, and ASTM International, and support the recent proposal at ISO for a standard devoted to Space Traffic Coordination and Management. We continue to emphasize that standards should be voluntary and consensus based, including key input from industry on best practices.

Speaking of industry, let me highlight once again the essential role that industry MUST play in creating innovative solutions to a space debris problem that is changing “at speed.” Most of you know that over 80% of the global space market is commercial, and that number is bound to grow. Industry is bringing so many new commercial missions into the market that our safety approaches must keep pace. That’s why leveraging commercial capabilities is key to our approach, and a core aspect of SPD-3. NAPA also validated this point.

It’s also why the Department of Commerce is at the center of this transition. The Department’s reach is global at a time when we need to harness a wide range of technical and other approaches from U.S. industry and those of our allies. We have been interacting regularly with companies that can help on the supply side – bringing innovative new capabilities to market – as well as those who will require wholly new kinds of SSA information. Many new space missions will require SSA information that is more timely, accurate, and even persistent than is publicly available today.

Some of you have heard me talk before about exciting commercial developments in areas like sensing, data storage and data management, analytics, and visualization. The opportunities to leverage those continue to grow. But more recently, we’ve seen commercial capabilities that can be leveraged in artificial intelligence, data security and integrity, and even marketplace brokerage capabilities that can ensure that operators get the right warning, once, when they really need it. These can help improve the “false positive” problem that space operators have told us they worry about.

We’re very mindful of creating a basic service – as it is referred to in SPD-3 – that does not impede the emergence of a much larger space safety industry. While the basic service will be provided free of user fees, it should also be the starting point for a whole new slate of commercial space safety services. In fact, we are already talking with companies that are planning commercial services like maneuver planning and orbit optimization. Within the next two months, OSC will host an industry day, likely virtually, to update industry on our thinking and to hear about the new capabilities can be brought to bear on this important problem.

Much of our focus over the next year will be on further development of the OADR. The OADR will be an open-access cloud platform that connects data and services to suppliers, consumers, and managers using open APIs. We’ve already leveraged NOAA’s big data project as the initial platform for the OADR, and incorporated NOAA’s space weather data to explore access and security protocols, public-private partnerships, and other issues. We expect to add other U.S. government and commercial data sources and products as resources become available. The DoD’s public catalogue and NASA’s micro-meteorite database are planned as near-term data dets, and we are talking with State about hosting the US satellite registration data base. We are also anxious to encourage satellite operator ephemeris sharing as a growing norm, vice an exception.

Our top-level OADR architecture has matured considerably over the past year, by documenting key assumptions, consolidating inputs from partner USG organizations, verifying existing authorities to conduct the mission, and establishing an initial position paper on resource requirements over the next several years. We are also entering into Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, or CRADAs, to help refine other details about the OADR.

While the OADR will be the platform from which Commerce ultimately provides the basic service, it will also be a platform for the release of data to encourage research and development by academia and industry. The data in the OADR will be unclassified and releasable in order to ensure transparency in the hope of facilitating innovation. Participants will be expected to practice cyber hygiene, undergo some technical evaluation, and conform to responsible business practices. The recently released Space Policy Directive-5 provides critical links between cybersecurity and space systems that are related to our efforts.

Among the guiding principles for the OADR are to provide reliable and trustworthy basic space flight safety services in order to allow operators to make timely and accurate decisions, to quickly incorporate new technologies and best practices to keep up with the rapidly changing commercial space sector, and improve safety, stability, and security in space through cooperation with DoD and our allies.

Because the architecture will be open, there will be opportunities for expanded coordination with the full range of spacefaring nations and activities, thus providing a solid technical foundation for confidence-building measures which can enhance stability and sustainability for all nations.

Our international outreach is already underway. We have been in regular discussions with allies and like-minded partners about civil and commercial participation in the OADR, including how it can support global implementation of guidelines for the safety of space operations. We are in discussions with the European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking Consortium, and a wide range of both long-standing and new space partners — including Commonwealth allies, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates – about their participation. Working collaboratively to harmonize national regulatory frameworks, vice taking a top-down, legal positivist approach, will also ensure that we can all keep up with the pace of space exploration and space commerce.

Many of our allies and some commercial entities are also participating in DoD’s Sprint Advance Concept Training (SACT) exercises, which Commerce has been pleased to co-sponsor in support of our efforts. The SACT exercises have been an exceptional way to test concepts for government – industry interactions, data interoperability and data management, and new approaches to warning globally in the interest of space safety. We have also encouraged participating satellite operators to share both maneuver and ephemeris plans to encourage cooperative tracking and facilitate new paradigms for space operations.

Finally, NAPA, like many of us here at AMOS and most others in the space community, emphasized the “urgent need” for action on the space debris problem. Even as the space environment changes quickly, space debris is no longer a theoretical problem but one which could seriously impact our future use of space. This message is finally moving beyond the technical space community to our political leaders and even the public at large. Our challenge is a critically important one, and it will require an innovative approach to advancing technical knowledge and new rules for safe space operations. We have already gained momentum, and there’s too much at risk to slow down or do nothing at all.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today, and on behalf of Secretary Ross, the Department of Commerce, and the Office of Space Commerce, we look forward to working with our many different partners in the interest of improving space safety and sustainability. We hope to see you in Maui next year!