Remarks for SSA Workshop in Japan

On February 27, 2020, OSC Director Kevin O’Connell delivered keynote remarks for a space situational awareness workshop organized in Tokyo by the Japan Space Forum. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery. He delivered his remarks from Washington, D.C.

Improving Space Situational Awareness – Evolving Industry and International Dimensions

Good morning, and thank you for allowing me to join you virtually during these challenging times. I fondly recall last year’s Japan Space Forum event as being one of the most productive SSA meetings during the year, and am sorry not to be there with you.

Of course, my name is Kevin O’Connell, and I am the Director of the Office of Space Commerce at the U.S. Department of Commerce. My Office is the principal advocate for commercial space within the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.

Much has happened since our discussions in Tokyo last year. As a reminder, our Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3), released in June 2018, directed the Department of Commerce to play a key role in the modernization of our nation’s space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities. Just two weeks ago, I testified before our Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on the importance of the space congestion challenge and the Department of Commerce’s related initiatives.

Specifically, SPD-3 directed Commerce to establish a capability to provide on-orbit collision avoidance notifications to private sector and international actors. This was done in recognition of the increasing congestion in space, but also in recognition of the rapid growth of private sector and international activities in space. And SPD-3 has an explicit recognition of how much the private sector can quickly contribute to the modernization of our SSA system and create a whole new slate of commercial space safety services.

There are so many different ways to highlight the importance of improving SSA capabilities. First of all we want to protect the International Space Station and the billions of dollars of investment by the United States, Japan, Europe, and others that have already been made. Second, the exciting growth in space commerce depends critically on improving our understanding of the space environment. Here’s why: today’s growth in space commerce is partly based on applying business efficiencies to a more traditional government model of space acquisition. This new approach has created developments like reusability, miniaturization, and lean manufacturing, and is resulting in lower costs for space access and operations. Space debris risks adding cost and complexity once again.

Then there are the realities of how space commerce is growing. The space environment is bound to grow more complex, given current and planned future launches, and a wide range of expected new space services from satellite servicing to additive manufacturing and satellite maneuverability. (We were pleased to see the success of Northrup Grumman’s satellite servicing mission yesterday, in blazing a path to a whole new realm of space commerce.)

This means that we will need as exquisite a set of SSA capabilities — and modern mechanisms to alert private sector and international operators — as we have ever had before. This will require leveraging a wide range of government and especially commercial capabilities across the SSA value chain of sensors, data management, analytics and visualization, and other capabilities. Space Policy Directive 3 strongly encourages the participation of our allies.

That list of capabilities should therefore highlight the wide range of government, industry, and academic initiatives that are potentially helpful in improving SSA. While traditional technical space knowledge is essential, parallel developments in communications, digitization, cloud computing and machine learning will also be part of the solution. Many more organizations in the United States, Japan and Europe can and should participate in an SSA system that continuously improves but, more importantly, improves space safety and sustainability. Improved SSA allows for greatly improved communication and coordination between satellite operators, and between governments and satellite operators.

Improved SSA will enable the new space economy, partly by allowing for risk to be assessed differently. An improved understanding of the space environment will ease access to capital, insurance, and allow companies and financial backers to invest in new, revolutionary technologies. Technologies such as satellite servicing and active debris removal will rely on advanced SSA products and will revolutionize the commercial space industry, pushing it towards its trillion dollar potential.

At the U.S. Department of Commerce, our efforts are focused in a number of key areas: understanding the kinds of capabilities entering the market, helping to improve standards and best practices, and the creation of the open architecture data repository, or OADR. The key word in the OADR is “open” as the basis for highly interactive and operational exchanges between space operators and commercial and other high quality sources about the space environment. But that openness must also involve measures of trust and reliability, across a wide range of areas like validation and cybersecurity.

The OADR will be a cloud-based, highly flexible and scalable platform from which private sector and international operators will receive space safety notifications and have access to tailored commercial products.

All of this is being done in partnership with the Department of Defense, NASA, and other U.S. federal agencies, of course. And to be clear, the Department of Commerce is not replacing the DoD’s SSA capabilities, but assuming responsibility for private sector and international on-orbit collision avoidance notifications. DoD will continue to operate and improve upon its space sensor capabilities, consistent with its Space Domain Awareness mission, but also continue to provide the “authoritative catalogue” of space safety data. This will be the initial basis for Commerce’s efforts. DoD will also continue to liaise with, and provide military SSA data to our international military partners.

Japan, our European allies, and others, will continue to develop capabilities pertinent to modernizing SSA, which will provide additional opportunities for cooperation with the United States in the area of space safety. Scientific and technical research in the many areas that underpin improved SSA is greatly needed, including improved modeling of space objects, predictive analytics, and the impacts of space weather on SSA. We have recently moved to strengthen the relationship between our efforts in the Office of Space Commerce and NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center because of the integral relationship between the two technical disciplines. A coordinated international approach to space safety will improve the global understanding of the space environment and help ensure that all operations in space are conducted in a sustainable and responsible manner, even as the environment grows more complex.

Let me spend a few minutes on the establishment of standards and best practices. Even as we work to improve SSA from a technical perspective, we need new “rules of the road” to inform space safety and sustainability. Some of the necessary ingredients of those rules will be international norms and standards and best practices. All of our countries are just back from the COPUOS (Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) discussion in Vienna, where the long-term sustainability of outer space activities was a key agenda item.

This is an area where international cooperation must adjust to the growing role of the private sector as well as the emergence of new space actors. Space safety is increasingly reliant on commercially-provided data, and the private sector is also where high-speed technical innovation is taking place. So improved SSA is valuable to both the supply and demand parts of the space commerce equation.

Once in a while, we hear that “industry doesn’t care about space safety and sustainability.” Nothing could be farther from the truth; safety relates to continuing provision of services and revenue and potential profitability. From our perspective at the Commerce Department, industry is actually taking on a more active role in highlighting space safety, through organizations like CONFERS and the Space Safety Coalition. And even individual companies.

On technical standards, for example, there is also a lot of work taking place, but it is not well coordinated. A large number of standards development organizations are actively working on space safety standards, but there is no coherent approach that integrates all of them. A few weeks ago, my office, along with other federal agencies, participated in a commercial space industry coordination meeting with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). One of the ideas we are discussing is an approach that integrates all of these standards efforts in order to identify gaps and overlaps, and to inform the development of standards in new space mission areas.

As I noted before, the United States, Japan, and many of our allies have been involved in advancing voluntary, non-legally binding, long-term sustainability discussions at the UN. In addition to noting the importance of private sector capabilities, recent discussions in Vienna highlighted the importance of capacity building so that newer space-faring nations can develop domestic mechanisms to implement all applicable LTS guidelines Looking ahead, there are some clear opportunities for the United States and Japan to assist with capacity building in the Indo-Pacific region. These outreach efforts can also inform work over the next five years in a new “LTS 2.0” working group under COPUOS.

Let me conclude by drawing a historical parallel to where we are on SSA. And it is a parallel that our Japanese colleagues will uniquely appreciate. In the 1980’s, President Reagan directed that the government’s investment in the Global Positioning System be open to potential commercial use, especially in the name of safety. Several decades of U.S. military investment would now be open to commercial innovation and further investment in GPS-enhancing systems and services. In 2000, President Clinton ended the intentional degradation of civilian GPS signals, giving the same accuracy enjoyed by the military to everyone in the world. That decision led to an explosion of new commercial applications that we now use every single day, including on devices that seamlessly integrate GPS and QZSS for better performance. (By the way, my Department is happy to support a QZSS ground site in Guam and we are currently working to identify another potential site in Alaska.) According to a recent study we commissioned, the U.S. government’s investment in GPS has enabled over $1.4 trillion in economic benefits beyond the system’s original, military purpose.

I believe that this is exactly where we are, and where we should go with SSA. Decades of American leadership and investment now stand ready to benefit from the increased participation of the private sector and our allies. At Commerce, we see the future of space as overwhelmingly commercial. That will create many new benefits to improve our lives on earth, but also allow us to explore the heavens. As space technologies proliferate rapidly, governments will increasingly rely on their commercial partners to support government missions. And the growth and diversification of space commerce creates economic security in a way that will enhance our national security.

There is a lot of good work towards improving SSA that is being done across the world right now, but there is a lot more work to be done. The problem of space congestion is an urgent one, and one that is bound to become more complex. And a solution to this problem not only preserves the current space operating environment, but opens up a world of possibilities for commercial space enterprise. This solution will be achieved together, through collaboration and coordination so that all space faring nations can pursue the economic, security, and scientific benefits that space has to offer.

Thank you very much for you time and I wish you all a fruitful day of discussion. Take good care.