Richard DalBello, director of NOAA Office of Space Commerce, explains how his organisation is helping the commercial space sector

NOAA Space Commerce is part of the US Department of Commerce, yet has the responsibility for space traffic?

The Department of Commerce is a large agency with a broad array of responsibilities. The bureaus of the department cover topics as diverse as trade, weather, regulation of earthobserving satellites, standards, cybersecurity, regulation of fishing, export control and much more. The Office of Space Commerce focuses on the economic growth and technological advancement of the US space commerce industry. It advocates for the commercial industry’s interests during the government’s development and implementation of national space policies. One such policy, issued in 2018, is the National Space Traffic Management Policy (SPD-3).

SPD-3 recognises the urgent need to provide improved space situational awareness (SSA) to commercial and civilian space operators as Earth’s orbits become increasingly congested with traffic and hazardous debris. The urgency for SSA data and warning services has intensified in the years since SPD-3 was signed, as the number of active satellites has more than tripled and new debris fields have been created by space collisions and irresponsible anti-satellite weapon testing.

Today’s SSA support to commercial and civilian operators is provided by the Department of Defense (DoD) using sensors from their space surveillance network. Their system was designed to provide space domain awareness for warfighters, not customer support to commercial businesses. SPD-3 directs DoD to transfer its public SSA support functions to the Department of Commerce, which is better equipped to support industry needs, so that DoD can focus its resources on its national security mission.

Within Commerce, the Office of Space Commerce is a logical place to provide SSA support to commercial space operators, as the Office already supports the US space industry in many other ways. NOAA already has deep experience with data management and prediction in the context of weather – collecting massive amounts of data from tens of thousands of sensors, sharing it on open data platforms and performing computational analysis to generate safety alerts and warnings. For our SSA system, we are leveraging commercial innovations such as cloud computing to keep it at the forefront of modern technology and to support the growth of commercial markets that generate new revenue and jobs for the nation. While we will use SSA data from DoD as a baseline, we augment it with layers of commercially available SSA data to form a more complete picture of the traffic flows in space and provide more accurate forecasts of potential collisions.

What is space commerce?

In broad terms, space commerce means businesses using the medium of space to benefit our economy. For the layperson, it is what enables you to navigate the world with high-res imagery in the palm of your hand. Space commerce includes the traditional kinds of space activities that started in the government but became commercialised: launches, satellite communications, Earth imaging and satellite navigation. These days, it also includes a wide range of innovative and entrepreneurial concepts, such as in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM), active debris removal, space tourism and asteroid/lunar mining.

Who should be responsible for managing space traffic?

The system that my organisation is building will provide situational awareness information and warnings for satellite operators, but it will not direct them to take action in the way an air traffic controller would. We call it the Traffic Coordination System for Space (TraCSS), with the operative word being ‘co-ordination’. The United States does not own outer space in the way it owns the NAS, so we do not have authority to control space traffic. The best we can do is to promote the development of – and adherence to – voluntary rules of the road for space operations. Of course, such rules are useless in the absence of any kind of situational awareness. A driver cannot avoid a collision if they can’t even see out the windshield.

What is the timing for all of this to happen?

We plan to bring our TraCSS system online with initial operating capability by the end of Fiscal Year 2024. We have already conducted a pilot project to demonstrate how we can achieve certain capabilities in the near term by leveraging commercially available data and analytics. Our system is designed to offer a basic set of SSA services to satellite operators, as directed by SPD-3. Not all of them will be available at IOC, but we will roll out additional capabilities over the following years. We will leave the more advanced, value-added services to the private sector to develop and commercialise.

Are there different challenges based on the type of space vehicle?

There is definitely a difference between tracking and managing fast-moving satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) versus the (relatively) fixed ones in geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). We need to leverage different types of sensors to observe them. I say ‘leverage’ because the Department of Commerce will not own or operate any space traffic observing systems. Instead, we will use commercially available capabilities in addition to DoD’s space surveillance network.

There is an additional challenge when tracking satellites capable of active manoeuvres. Passive satellites follow simple, Keplerian physics, which makes it easy to predict their trajectories. That’s not the case when you have hundreds of LEO satellites initially deployed at one altitude, then slowly raised to their final altitude over a period of weeks.

In December 2022, NOAA awarded a number of contracts to provide space traffic co-ordination services. Specifically, what are the tasks involved in this contract award?

In December, we kicked off a commercial GEO SSA pilot programme that was designed to demonstrate how commercial companies, operating without US government information, could provide valuable SSA services. As part of this pilot, we awarded seven contracts to commercial space firms for space situational awareness data analysis.

These commercial purchases supported real-time civil spaceflight safety functions, including satellite tracking, spaceflight safety analysis and notification and anomaly detection and alerting over a two month period starting from December 5, 2022. Commercially based spaceflight services were provided to a group of about 100 satellites. In September 2022, we also awarded five commercial data contracts for GEO space object tracking data. That data was used to support the pilot project.

Taken together, the earlier contracts for space tracking data and the new contracts for space data analysis demonstrate the depth and breadth of the US commercial SSA industry. Commercial capabilities will form the core of the Commerce department’s TraCSS system.

The commercial GEO pilot project aims to demonstrate the capability of US commercial data products, analytics and services to provide holistic spaceflight safety mission assurance in the GEO and medium Earth orbit (MEO) regimes. The pilot is exploring how and to what extent commercial SSA services can be used to augment or replace government services for commercial and civil space traffic co-ordination.

The pilot project is wrapping up right now. We will assess the contribution of the commercial capabilities against a benchmark of present services to determine the maturity of wholly commercial capabilities. Results will be documented in a report to be released in the first half of 2023. The commercial GEO pilot will also inform our future development of operational SSA capabilities that will cover the broader space environment, including LEO.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to make it clear that we are building TraCSS to provide spaceflight safety services for the whole world, not just the US. SSA and space traffic co-ordination are critical to the preservation of the space environment for users worldwide be they commercial, civilian, scientific or security. We are already doing experiments with international partners to see how we can input their SSA data into TraCSS to improve the system’s coverage and accuracy for the benefit of all.


Article originally published in Air Traffic Management magazine, issue 1, 2023. Want to receive all of the latest stories as soon as they are published? Register now for your free digital subscription.


Image credit: A nighttime lights image from 2020 of the US from the NOAA/NASA Suomi- NPP satellite’s day-night band Earth Observation Group, Payne Institute for Public Policy, Colorado School of Mines