Insight - Space Situational Awareness and Commercial Rendezvous and Proximity Operations

Monday, November 5, 2018

By Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning, and Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director

The next major step in space applications, market creation, and robotic and human exploration is potentially being created through the advent of on-orbit satellite servicing (OOS). The ability to approach, grasp, manipulate, modify, repair, refuel, integrate, and build completely new platforms and spacecraft on orbit is underway through new OOS vehicles and experiments. A closely related field, on-orbit rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) that are part of many servicing activities, is also being actively explored by commercial firms, civil government organizations, and militaries for a wide variety of applications.

While commercial RPO and OOS services hold great promise, the development and use of these capabilities also creates challenges for government oversight of private sector space activities and ensuring RPO and OOS are done in a safe and responsible manner. Under Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, States have the responsibility to provide authorization and continuing supervision of their private sector entities’ space activities. A growing number of States implement this responsibility through national licensing of commercial space activities and operate space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities to monitor space activities. However, the commercial RPO and OOS capabilities under development are pushing the boundaries of what the existing national licenses and SSA capabilities are designed to handle.

To further discussions on these issues, the Secure World Foundation (SWF) co-hosted a discussion of the links between SSA and commercial RPO and OOS during the sixth annual Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Dialogue. The AMOS Dialogue was a small, invitation-only workshop co-hosted by the Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB) and SWF during the 2018 AMOS Conference, held on the Hawaiian island of Maui, September 11-14, 2018. 

The goal of the AMOS Dialogue series is to facilitate discussion among key stakeholders in the SSA community, thereby promoting greater collaboration and cooperation to enhance SSA for safe and responsible space activities. To accomplish this, the Dialogue brings together representatives from current and future SSA programs and initiatives around the world with a variety of end users and stakeholders so that they may exchange information and views in a not-for-attribution setting. Previous Dialogues looked at bringing together SSA providers and end users, collaboration between private sector and governmental SSA programs, evolving current close approach warnings processes towards space traffic management (STM), the links between small satellites and SSA, and future scenarios for global SSA and STM.

The topic of the 2018 AMOS Dialogue was the connection between SSA, RPO, and OOS. The participants examined the new RPO technologies and capabilities being developed to support commercial OOS, and how they impact current SSA capabilities and practices. The group also debated what role SSA should play in the development of international standards for RPO and OOS, how SSA capabilities should evolve to support future RPO and OOS missions, and how SSA and RPO impact the development of future space traffic management regimes.

The main takeaways from the Dialogue were that licensing for on-orbit activities remains a work in progress. The United States recently changed its licensing rules to allow non-Earth imaging (NEI), a key part of RPO and OOS, but licensing and oversight for other aspects of RPO and OOS are still under discussion. More work is needed to define the SSA needs to support commercial RPO and OOS, which will vary depending on the orbital regime and what the specific activity is that is being monitored. Discussions have started to develop industry best practices and technical standards for OOS/RPO, but as of yet classification concerns have prevented the industry discussions from incorporating a lot of the historical lessons learned from military RPO. There was also agreement on the need to encourage and empower multiple private sector and governmental data providers to increase SSA capabilities, but a recognition that the SSA world will need to find ways to deal with the “big data” challenges stemming from greatly increased SSA capabilities.

Moving forward, SWF plans to address several of these topics through a variety of initiatives in 2019. Through our continued role supporting the Secretariat of CONFERS, we expect to play a key role in facilitating the ongoing discussion among industry members to develop principles, best practices, and, eventually, technical standards for commercial RPO and OOS. SWF will work with the United States and other countries on developing national policies and regulations that incorporate industry best practices and provide regulatory certainty that enables safe and sustainable commercial space development. We also plan to extend our work on fostering industry best practices on other aspects of commercial space activities, such as the potential role of insurers and investors in incenting responsible behaviors in space. We will continue to work with the private sector, civil society, and governments on implementing the 21 guidelines for improving the long-term sustainability of space activities under the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS). Finally, we will continue to work on enhancing national and global SSA capabilities and combining them with national oversight to develop future STM frameworks.

Last updated on November 5, 2018