The field of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) has become the latest space sector to see significant commercial activity in what was once a government and largely military domain. The implications of commercialization in space, including capabilities, security, policy challenges and the effect of space traffic management (STM), was the main theme of the SSA Policy Forum at this year’s 18th Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Conference held at the Wailea Beach Resort-Marriott on 20-22 September 2017.

AMOS Conference Space Traffic Management

SSA Policy Forum Panel held on the first day of the conference. From left to right: Moderated by Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor, Secure World Foundation; Helen Reed, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Chandah Space Technologies; Doug Hendrix, CEO, ExoAnalytic Solutions; Paul Welsh, Vice President Business Development, Analytical Graphics Inc.; Edward Lu, Vice President, Strategic Projects, Leolabs; Tom Kubancik, Vice President, Advanced Programs, Applied Defense Solutions; Steward Bain, CEO, Northstar. Photo Credit: Jose Morales

The three-day conference, organized and presented by the Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB), featured a rich line-up of keynotes and thought-provoking panel discussions about significant public policy issues, such as the nature of the market for space services and finding the right balance among commercial innovation, national security and international cooperation. The event also included a full technical schedule of presentations on optical systems, advanced image processing, astrodynamics, space debris, and satellite characterization.

The conference of 739 participants, including more than 100 from 15 countries besides the U. S., and including three former astronauts, kicked off with a keynote from Mr. Doug Loverro, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy. He called for reviving U. S. leadership in advancing priorities in space, outlining concrete steps the U. S. Government can take now.

Following Loverro’s speech, Secure World Foundation Director of Program Planning Dr. Brian Weeden moderated a panel discussion on STM. The panel summarized the status of the current debate in the United States Government on assigning responsibility for civil SSA and the potential role of commercial satellite operators in establishing norms and standards for working in space.

“More than 60 countries currently operate at least one satellite and an estimated 16,000 new satellites are planned for launch in the next decade,” said Weeden. “At least 1,500 active satellites orbiting Earth right now provide a wide array of data and services that are critical to human societies. They contribute information that’s vital for the environment, education, food, security, public health, water resource management, human rights, banking, disaster relief and nuclear security. The Global Positioning System (GPS), for example, is estimated to have benefited the U. S. economy by more than $55 billion in 2013 alone.”

At the same time, the field of space is experiencing rapid changes. Growing numbers of governments, companies, and other entities are starting to get involved in space, and some are exploring new types of activities and capabilities that could in the future bring massive new benefits. One of the big unanswered policy questions in SSA is the future relationship between the government and private sector.

“Clearly both will have a role,” said Weeden. “But how to figure out the division of labor and how they can work together is a big question. The elephant in the room for commercial SSA is secrecy. It’s becoming harder and harder for governments to keep their activities in space as hidden as they once were. At some point soon, the cost of restricting or hindering SSA innovation and data sharing is going to outweigh the national security benefits.”

The real concern is that if the U. S. Government doesn’t relax their restrictive policies and allow it to flourish in the U. S., then technology and innovation will move to foreign countries, as it did in the remote-sensing industry. The increased availability of space technology and capabilities has both advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it leads to a great increase in innovation, lower costs and greater access to beneficial satellite services for everyone.

“However, the growth and diversification of space activities and the influx of new actors have the potential to exacerbate many of the current challenges to the long-term sustainable use of space,” Weeden explained. “These challenges include on-orbit crowding, radio-frequency interference, the proliferation of space debris and the chances of an incident in space sparking or escalating geopolitical tensions and conflict on Earth.”

SSA Forum panelist Tom Kubancik, Vice President for Advanced Programs at Applied Defense Solutions, Inc., added, “A cross-industry global initiative is needed, either led by an existing entity or spearheaded by a new collective force. We must establish a systematic approach that works for users, operators, and overseers while keeping the need for order and maintaining the pace of investment and innovation in the space economy. Industry must lead the way with STM and allow the politicians to focus on the extensive regulatory and enforcement functions that will ultimately be required.”

Panelist Doug Hendrix, ExoAnalytic Solutions’ CEO, agreed. “We realize, now more than ever, that industry and government must work together both nationally and internationally,” he said. “Although the topic of STM is not new, it has recently seen renewed interest among satellite operators and governments. Satellite operators are accustomed to getting data free from the U. S. Government. However there is a growing dissatisfaction with the volume and quality of that information. Growing international and commercial interest in space has increased concerns about physical and radio-frequency congestion in key orbits. The discussion must continue about what steps are being considered for future responsibilities and authorities, and the major questions that still need to be answered.”

The discussion throughout the conference examined potential future scenarios for STM, including current trends and potential challenges. The emergence of large numbers of active satellites in space is driving the need to protect the space environment.

“Time is critical to figure it out,” said Paul Welsh, Vice President for Business Development, Analytical Graphics, Inc. “Thousands of satellites are being planned for launch into mega-constellations, which will eventually constitute a huge traffic hazard. Governments and commercial satellite operators must work together to define rules to maximize the safety of flight and to protect space systems that are essential for our daily lives.”

While scientists and engineers discussed how to enable our future in space, and policy experts discussed how to shape that future, the next generation was already being introduced to it. On the last day of the conference, MEDB hosted Student Space Exploration Day. Over 160 Maui County students, our future engineers, scientists and space leaders, met with former astronaut Dr. Janet Kavandi, Director of the NASA Glenn Research Center, for a first-hand discussion of living and working in space. Additionally, the students experienced hands-on scientific demonstrations and had industry presentations of advanced technology.