Remarks from Japan Space Forum

On February 28, 2019, Kevin O’Connell delivered remarks at a space sustainability forum hosted by the Government of Japan. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Remarks of Kevin M. O’Connell
Director, Office of Space Commerce
U.S. Department of Commerce

Ensuring Stable Use of Space: Addressing the Challenges of Increasingly Congested Space
National Space Policy Secretariat, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan
Sasakawa Peace Foundation Building

February 28, Tokyo Japan

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Kevin O’Connell, and I am the Director of the Office of Space Commerce at the U.S. Department of Commerce. I am very excited to be speaking and meeting with you on my first ever trip to Japan. Thank you to the National Space Policy Secretariat and the Cabinet Office for the invitation to be here with you today.

You will have already noticed the diversity among the first few keynote addresses this morning, yet they all converge around important policy and technical issues related to space debris and the increasing congestion in space. The space debris problem is an urgent problem affecting all space capabilities, ranging from the International Space Station to the satellites informing science, safety, and security here on earth. One of our challenges is that most people do not even understand the extent to which space impacts their daily lives on earth.

The problem is bound to become more complex, given broad and ambitious plans by governments and especially commercial industry to bring innovative capabilities to space. In the United States, that challenge is explicitly recognized within the National Space Council’s Space Policy Directive 3 from last June on Space Traffic Management Policy.

Just as General Thompson and the previous speakers have spoken to us about how this problem affects the critical roles that space plays in defense and deterrence, I would now like to take us in a different direction to discuss how space debris and congestion could seriously hinder the emergence of a $ trillion space economy. There is, naturally, considerable discussion right now about the creation of a U.S. Space Force and how it will operate. But that sometimes overshadows the fact that the Trump Administration’s view of our future in space is overwhelmingly commercial. In fact, economics and national security have a new-found synergy given trends in the global security environment and in global markets. We have a trifecta right now of leadership, technology, and private capital that is changing the roles of government and industry in space, and is fueling a rapidly growing global space market.

Current estimates of the global space market are approximately $400B, with projections ranging from $1 to over $3 trillion over the next two decades. My boss, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, has asked us to look critically at those projections, including the factors that might impede or encourage them. On the bright side, we see continuing innovations in the “traditional” commercial space sectors like remote sensing, communications, navigation, and weather, even as wholly new market segments like robotics, additive manufacturing, and asteroid mining emerge. (On that note, of course, let me congratulate our Japanese colleagues and the Japanese people for the tremendous success of the Hyabusa-2 mission.)

Within the Department of Commerce, we are assessing a number of factors that will be needed to achieve the $T space economy. First, we are updating regulations to create a light-touch, business-friendly (permissive) environment that encourages commercial innovation while maintaining our Outer Space Treaty governance obligations and basic elements of safety. Both established and emerging countries are struggling with how to effectively regulate commercial space industries; under U.S. Space Policy Directive 2, for example, we are deeply involved in discussions about export controls, remote sensing, spectrum management, and even the reorganization of the Commerce Department in order to further encourage space commerce. We see the need for agile investment and insurance markets, including the creation and exchange of new kinds of information on emerging space business cases, improved characterization of risk, and other topics. Finally, we know that if the space economy is going to grow, we are going to have to attract a wide range of talent beyond the technical skills to create innovation in the market. Some of you will attend the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in early April, in Colorado Springs. The Department has a grant with the Space Foundation to visit a number of U.S. cities with the intent of attracting new kinds of entrepreneurs to the space business.

That brings us to the point of this conference. A key impediment to the rise of a $T space economy is the threat of space debris. Today, our ability to warn satellite operators is limited, first because of the amount of data that is tracked, and then because of the relative accuracy of warnings provided to satellite operators. Even as more sensor data becomes available — such as from the Space Fence that will come on line later this year — it will create a richer understanding of the space environment, but one that will still require parallel developments in data management, analytics, and visualization in order to improve space safety. All of these tap major developments in adjacent markets in the commercial world. As I have already mentioned, new plans in the market for large constellations, cubesats, increased launch, and maneuverable satellites are bound to create additional complexity for the congestion problem.

In the United States, we’ve recognized the call to action. SPD-3 directs my Department, the Department of Commerce, to work with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies in a “whole of government” effort to improve all aspects of the space congestion problem. SPD-3 seeks innovations in areas like debris mitigation, pursuit of standards and best practices, improved space spectrum management, and other areas. At Commerce, we are explicitly tasked with the creation of an open architecture data repository to, first, ultimately, provide conjunction assessments and related information to commercial satellite operators, as well as to create a platform for rapid innovation in areas that potentially affect the space congestion problem. Please think about the open architecture data repository, or OADR, for short, as a service-oriented, cloud computing environment where a variety of sensors, analytic tools, and visualization techniques can be explored, integrated, tested, and validated, relatively quickly, for a variety of space operators and purposes. Academia will play an important role here as well.

That’s both exciting and an awful lot to consider, so let me slow down and clarify a couple of points. First of all, SPD-3 tells us that our partners in DoD, based on their historical support role in this area, will retain the U.S. Government’s “authoritative catalogue” which will serve as the foundation for the Commerce-led Open Architecture Data Repository to support private sector innovations and enhanced information sharing. Second, nothing we do will disrupt traditional military-to-military relationships in this area, such as the SSA Agreement holders. Third, we will define with DoD a set of basic services that will continue to be provided free of user fees, and largely in support of the public safety mission. However, just as the Commerce Department does with metrological data, the definition of “basic services” will likely evolve both as new U.S. Government capabilities enter service and, more significantly, private sector innovations come to market.

Why Commerce? Among other details — such as the Department’s role in sharing public data (over 40% of the all the data shared by the U.S. government) to organizations like NOAA and NIST — we are gaining a strong understanding of commercial supply and demand in the SSA/STM market. On the supply side, we routinely interact with innovators and companies that are bringing new, pertinent capabilities to market, whether a wide range of sensors (e.g., small telescopes, radar, radio frequency) to new analytic tools and visualization techniques. These companies are working on even other SSA/STM service offerings that will enhance the satellite servicing and inspection markets. Those new capabilities alone will change the “supply side” economics of space. On the demand side, we are also working to understand the unique SSA/STM needs of space companies that are entering the market. What kinds of data will they need to have to avoid creating new space debris?

Let me say something briefly about space traffic management. The U.S. vision of space traffic management is not to establish some “traffic cop” for space. Rather, the goal is to improve, greatly, the quality and accuracy of information provided to satellite operators so that they work collaboratively with other space operators to make informed decisions about risk management and risk avoidance for their assets. While we often focus on the important conjunction warnings, the Administration envisions a whole new slate of space decision aids and other service offerings increase operational efficiency, and safety, in the market.

Please don’t misunderstand: governments will continue to play an important role in space, both generally, and on this topic specifically. The basis for that role, as Vice President Pence would say, will be less as a landlord and more as a customer and partner. The evolution of space traffic management, must involve partnerships between government and industry, and cooperation among international partners, given the urgency of the space congestion problem and the need to make rapid progress in mitigating it. One of the topics that we are discussing right now in Washington, is how allies and partner nations — especially their commercial sectors — might play a role in the Open Architecture Data Repository. Another is how American academics and technical experts can work with their counterparts in other spacefaring nations to advance SSA and STM science and technology, including fundamental knowledge of the space environment, algorithms, models and technical standards which support new commercial service offerings as well as government-to-government cooperation.

We will discuss many aspects of the space congestion problem over the next two days, and I hope that you can now see its importance through the lens of a dynamically growing, global space economy. While there will be many different dimensions of that economy, a large part of it will involve the creation of products and services that will improve all of our lives on earth. Our discussions are timely and important to ensuring those happen. Thank you, and I will look forward to our discussions throughout the workshop.

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Posted in Orbital Debris, SSA/STM