As space is becoming increasingly congested, lawmakers introduced a bill on Wednesday designed to add civilian agency components to space situational awareness to help create safe space operations amid growing concerns of orbital debris.
House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairman Don Beyer, D-Va., and Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., introduced the Space Safety and Situational Awareness Transition Act of 2022. According to the announcement, space situational awareness “provides a foundation for understanding where space objects are now, predicting their future trajectories, and evaluating the risk of potential collisions to operating satellites and human spaceflight safety.”
Specifically, the legislation gives the Commerce Department civil space situational awareness capability to help spaceflight safety and sustainability and supports NASA research and development related to space situational awareness. It provides $95 million for Commerce and $50 million for NASA in fiscal year 2024 to perform these functions.
“Space-based operations are now essential to systems our society and national security both rely on, and the number of satellites providing those systems is growing at a geometric rate,” Beyer said. “Our federal leadership on space situational awareness has not kept up with this growing footprint in space or the challenges it raises…The bill we introduced today is our best attempt to direct inter-agency traffic and establish clearly defined roles for key players on space situational awareness, including the Department of Commerce and NASA.”
In 2015 there were approximately 1,400 satellites in orbit. Today, that number has grown to 7,000 and is expected to be more than 60,000 by 2030. The Defense Department has been issuing SSA services and information to commercial and non-U.S. space operators, which is outside its scope. As a result, the lawmakers noted it is important to establish a civil agency capability to perform these tasks and transition those not related to Defense’s mission to the civil agencies. The bill establishes a temporary interagency transition team to ensure Commerce is initially operable by September 2024 and fully operational of this task by December 2025.
Accordingly, a civil space situational awareness capability would offer increased transparency, data sharing, usage of related commercial information, more precision and accuracy.
The bill supports commercial space situational awareness technology, data, systems and services as well as the development and adoption of industry-led best practices. Verified civil space situational awareness services and information will be publicly available with no direct user-fees. It also provides for studies related to cybersecurity, international cooperation, data sharing agreements and research plans related to space situational awareness.
“So many aspects of our daily lives—communications, weather forecasting, national security initiatives—rely on systems based in space,” Norcross said. “As space becomes more crowded every day, we must manage the risk of collisions, ensure the safety of spacecraft and support the sustainability of space for the future. This bill will do just that by building a foundation at the Department of Commerce for civil space situational awareness services and information.”
This new bill comes at a time of increased interest in the number of satellites in space and growing concern about orbital debris. This bill will be helpful to identify where active objects and orbital debris are located and where satellites or debris will be in the future.