STM Remarks from 2018 CODER workshop

On November 8, 2018, Kevin O’Connell delivered a keynote address on space traffic management at the Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research (CODER) Workshop in College Park, MD. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen and thank you for allowing me to speak to you here today. It is great to be back here at the University of Maryland, where I received my Public Policy Masters degree many years ago!

I have playfully titled my talk here today “Disrupting Space Debris: Harnessing Innovations in SSA/STM” partly because our approach to space debris is ready for disruption. What I mean by that is improving the accuracy and precision of our understanding of the space environment, but also in bringing new analytic and visualization tools to bear on the problem, all in the name of improving safety of the space environment.

I’m excited about the mission of Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research (CODER) and as I’m sure you all know, it directly relates to more than one of the key objectives with which my office, the Office of Space Commerce, has been tasked. We in the Department of Commerce fully support the mission and objectives of CODER and look forward to lots of future engagement with your organization. And on that note, I bring greetings from my boss, Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross. Secretary Ross is incredibly excited about the technological and economic prospects of space commerce and is fully committed to making the United States a hub for global space business.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Kevin O’Connell and I’m the new director of what we like to call the “revitalized” Office of Space Commerce. The Office of Space Commerce, established in 1988, has been tasked by the Trump Administration to serve as the principal authority for commercial space policy. Our mission is “to foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the U.S. commercial space industry.” This involves a number of specific initiatives but also the larger job of planning for a future space environment that is overwhelmingly commercial in nature. In this context, the U.S. government will no longer play the role of lone operator or landlord, but as a partner in and customer of the rapidly growing commercial space sector.

When I say that the future is overwhelmingly commercial, of course, we do have to recognize that the U.S. Government, along with other space-faring nations worldwide, will conduct national security activities in space. The United States also will seek to protect and defend American and allied national space interests. But neither the U.S. nor the global markets see national governments as the lone players in the space environment. Governments still play an important role – in supervision, authorization, and regulation – as well as sponsoring cutting-edge research for science, safety and security, while helping to validate others idea that come forth from academia and the commercial markets, especially where public use is concerned.

Why are we so excited about your efforts? As CODER knows, SSA and STM will play a significant role in enabling and providing for a long-term, successful space industry. The space debris problem is an urgent one, and ripe for disruption. Why?

  • Because it creates significant physical and operational risk to all space systems, including human spaceflight;
  • Because our understanding of the spaceflight safety hazards such as orbital debris remains relatively limited, and our ability to warn spacecraft owner operators accurately even more so;
  • Because new space concepts from cubesats to mega-constellations to maneuverable satellites are likely to complicate this situation, and
  • Because a burgeoning industry, or perhaps different industry segments, stands ready to help innovate rapidly in the face of these challenges. Concepts ranging from new forms of space sensing to analytic tools to to visualization all designed to increase accuracy are already in the market, and more are coming. Improved SSA serves to encourage even newer commercial ideas about decision aids for owner operators and entirely new service offerings in satellite servicing and space debris removal.

Why Commerce, you might ask? Perhaps because we operate, through NOAA, the largest fleet of operational civilian satellites in the world; perhaps because of organizations like NIST the Patent and Trademark Office. But, most importantly, because to be successful in SSA and STM, we are going to have to harness industry, whether to understand emerging capabilities or to understand what kinds of SSA and STM needs we will all have as the space economy changes.

This, of course, does not involve Commerce alone. The Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive 3 tasked the Department of Commerce with establishing a civil system for SSA and STM, a function currently undertaken by the Department of Defense. Today, the DoD provides SSA and STM data and conjunction warnings to commercial entities, partners, and allies worldwide. While the DoD will continue to maintain the U.S. Government’s “authoritative catalog” of space objects and continue military-to-military SSA and STM engagement, the Department of Commerce will assume responsibility for providing basic SSA and STM data to civil and commercial space stakeholders free of direct user fees.

One major part of the Departmentʼs responsibilities will be to create an open architecture data repository that starts with the DoD catalog and enables a host of innovative capabilities and data sets provided by industry, academia, our allies, and partners.

The repository is likely to be a very important source of innovation. Already within our early discussions, we hope to draw on state-of-the-art data management and data sharing capabilities, such as those that are available within cloud computing, and also allow for experimentation as new data sources and algorithms become available. There are important policy and technical questions about data fusion, but we will strive to create maximum opportunities for exploration, curation, and collaboration. These will serve both as a source of new commercial service offerings, but also as potential sources of innovation for the entire U.S. government’s enterprise. At Commerce, one path being explored is the role that the Department’s National Technical Information Service might play in this area. offerings for global markets. NTIS currently provides innovative data services to the U.S. government through joint venture partnerships with the private sector.

A critical dimension of improved SSA/STM is the establishment of operational best practices and associated technical standards. We need your help in understanding emerging standards and best practices, both at home and abroad. An August 2018 Aerospace paper “U.S. Space Traffic Management: Best Practices, Guidelines, Standards, and International Considerations” noted that “there are no widely embraced, compulsory, or integrated standards, best practices, or guidelines focused on mitigating risks in space.” We have to change that.

Standards form the basis of safe and responsible behavior in space and make future space participants more efficient. U.S. government incorporation of emerging capabilities into its own architecture will rely critically on new standards for issues ranging from sensor validation to analytic methods. Multilateral forums, such as COPUOS, will play an important role in developing internationally recognized standards and best practices, but industry itself is best positioned to propose new standards. Input from industry associations and other industry groups is often better input from individual companies.

Rather than seeking universal a priori space standards, which are generally hard to come by, we see the evolution of groups of space standards in focused areas like cubesats, mega-constellations, and end-of life/deorbit practices. Currently, under SPD-3, NASA is working to update the U.S. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices. I urge both industry and academia to take advantage of public comment periods for proposed rulemaking. The government wants your input and it will ultimately help us create a regulatory environment where companies are not reluctant to innovate for fear of unwieldy, burdensome and outdated regulatory processes.

In closing, I’d like to commend you all for the work that you are doing here at CODER. And as we all know, there’s a lot of work to be done. By working together, U.S. government, industry, and academia can establish a bedrock upon which global space commerce can flourish and innovate. I thank you for your time and for your work in this critical area.

I look forward to your questions.