SSA analyses are essential prerequisites for verifying compliance with any robust space governance regime, and support space safety at a more basic level
Precisely locating, identifying, and predicting the future position of satellites and space debris is part of “space situational awareness” (SSA). Current SSA data collection practices cannot maintain continuous supervision of all orbiting objects, limiting one’s ability to understand space activities, mitigate potential risks, and verify compliance with any future governance processes. A robust space governance regime will rely on an internationally trusted SSA network to verify that parties’ activities remain in compliance. Such a network would have value even in the absence of a legally-binding regime; short of an agreed-upon governance framework, cooperative SSA efforts could support behavioural norms.
An effective SSA system that can continuously supervise all space objects requires sensors of diverse modalities—for example, radiometric, photometric, hyperspectral—in locations around the globe and potentially space-based sensors. No single state can operate such a system from its own territory given the geographic constraints. Thus, verifying compliance with a future space regime necessitates significant political cooperation on and technical interoperability amongst SSA systems.
A robust space governance regime will rely on an internationally trusted SSA network to verify that parties’ activities remain in compliance.
SSA analyses are essential prerequisites for verifying compliance with any robust space governance regime, and support space safety at a more basic level. Currently, analytical practices do not sufficiently aid operators in addressing critical space safety issues, including collisions in orbit. Uncertainty about such risks, stemming in part from limited data about space objects or incompatible analytic techniques, will inhibit trust amongst parties to a future outer space regime. Modern developments, including the accelerating pace of space launch and growing number of objects in orbit, have increased the opportunities for mistrust to fester amongst actors. These trends are unlikely to abate.
Bridging multinational space sensing networks and analysis nodes will be difficult. The system must overcome political sensitivities and technical integration challenges to establish baseline measurements and expectations for the future. This future network must facilitate transparent and near real-time communication about planned and executed manoeuvres to support adherence to any rules about collision avoidance procedures or, more broadly, safety and security in outer space.
Isolated SSA catalogues increase the likelihood of divergent data and incongruent analyses, hampering risk mitigation. Legal constraints and political apprehensison amongst states related to communicating or collaborating on SSA may obstruct the cooperation needed to develop adequate analytical baselines. Without baselines for data collection, sharing, and analysis techniques, the lingua franca of verifying compliance with a future space governance regime will be stunted at best.
Opaque SSA practices severely hinder collective efforts to qualify space activities, and, thus, stymie prospects for establishing meaningful governance. Stronger international civil partnerships for SSA data collection and curation, conceivably as simple as facilitating interoperability amongst space object catalogues or resolving contradictory entries, could help overcome technical and political obstacles to space governance. Beyond addressing imprecise data, improved partnerships could raise the bar for analysis.
Legal constraints and political apprehensison amongst states related to communicating or collaborating on SSA may obstruct the cooperation needed to develop adequate analytical baselines.
Some states share SSA data and analyses. For instance, the US Space Command, the global leader in SSA data collection and analysis, shares basic data and emergency conjunction predictions at no cost with the intent to forestall catastrophes and promote sustainable uses of space. Unfortunately, the current Department of Defense sensors typically only track objects larger than 10 centimetres in diameter, leaving concerning gaps in the catalogue of orbital hazards. In the wake of recent US attempts to enhance military SSA systems, some legislators and observers have supported shifting responsibilities for SSA to a civil governmental entity to support continued transparent access to irreplaceable datasets.
Other major space actors are also pursuing indigenous SSA networks. For instance, the European Union (EU) is defining requirements for an SSA system expressly to reduce reliance on foreign military systems and to unshackle their analyses of challenges to sustainable and safe space activities. Elsewhere, the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences coordinates the International Scientific Optical Network, an open SSA endeavour that consolidates data from optical sensors in more than 15 countries. An emerging commercial SSA sector offers alternative avenues by which to diversify SSA data sources.
Commercial SSA service providers face unique challenges in ensuring that their SSA data are both broadly accessible and trusted. Market-based constraints and concealment of proprietary analytical tools may inhibit effective collaboration and oversight, and a growing ecosystem could challenge consensus-building amongst private SSA providers, and thus, limit the efficacy of industry self-governance processes. Furthermore, it is unclear if and how commercial data can be used to attribute malicious intent or verify compliance with an international space governance regime.
Unaligned SSA data collection and analysis systems, without commensurate cooperation on aspects like global benchmarks, potentially hamstring procedures that could be used to determine compliance with a future space regime.
States’ developments of indigenous SSA capabilities in pursuit of self-reliance may come at the expense of collaboration or cooperation. Unaligned SSA data collection and analysis systems, without commensurate cooperation on aspects like global benchmarks, potentially hamstring procedures that could be used to determine compliance with a future space regime. A lack of cooperation on SSA also increases the difficulty of core safety activities like conjunction avoidance operations. For instance, conjunction predictions may diverge significantly, incentivising satellite operators to wait until the last moment before taking action. While timely second opinions sometimes benefit sound risk analysis processes, significant deviation amongst findings may intensify mistrust and misperception, especially during crises.
Overcoming political and technical obstacles to a space governance regime comes down to two imperatives: 1) Expand civil cooperation towards building trusted catalogues of tracked space objects of all sizes in all Earth orbits, and 2) establish a robust global standard for SSA data analysis. The first step along this path is for states to design and enforce national rules that keep SSA catalogues current, ensure timely information sharing, and support transparency. Commercial SSA providers will hopefully serve a significant parallel role by developing strong industry standards for analyses. Enterprising companies have an advantage as they could promulgate standards without being slowed by onerous bureaucracy. As SSA practices coalesce, accommodating a handful of multinational systems and commercial providers in an international forum to deconflict divergent catalogues and analyses may be an effective and plausible way forward, so long as this approach does not foreclose on truly global SSA cooperation.
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Benjamin Silverstein is a research analyst for the Space Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.Read More +