As Space Junk Multiplies, Pentagon Is Stuck Tracking It for Civilians

Currently, the U.S. government’s space tracking mission is still handled by the Pentagon.

Currently, the U.S. government’s space tracking mission is still handled by the Pentagon. Getty Images

Private industry is launching at a pace with which the military’s space-surveillance system can’t keep up. Now lawmakers say the Commerce Department’s fix is running late.

It’s been nearly three years since the U.S. Commerce Department was ordered to start keeping tabs on satellites and orbital debris — and to relieve the Pentagon of its duty to warn the world’s space operators of impending collisions. But the effort has stalled, even as orbits fill up and the danger grows.

Then-President Trump’s 2018 directive was meant to allow the Defense Department’s orbital trackers to go back to their original mission: using their sensors to protect national security assets in space. Commerce was supposed to build a more comprehensive tracking system that combined the U.S. military data with information from commercial tracking services and other governments. This new public database would notify civil and international operators when their satellites — or crewed spacecraft — were in peril. 

But that handoff stalled amid staff turnover in the Office of Space Commerce and, later, the presidential transition. Now as the pace of space launches accelerates, the likelihood of collisions is high and rising — and so, some industry officials say, is the chance that America’s longstanding leadership in international space policy may slip away.

“While they’re stuck in neutral, they’re ceding a lot of initiative to other efforts globally,” said Jim Cooper, a senior systems engineer at COMSPOC Corp., a space situational awareness spin off from Analytical Graphics Inc. He pointed to a European Union working group tasked with setting guidelines for best practices and norms of behavior. China is also investing in its own capability to track objects in space. 

Currently, the U.S. government’s space tracking mission is still handled by the Pentagon — specifically, Space Command — which collects data on orbiting objects and alerts companies and other governments when an accident is possible. That means if a Chinese satellite is on a collision course with a piece of space debris, it’s the military that makes the call to alert foreign officials to the problem.

The mission has grown exponentially as companies like SpaceX and OneWeb launch mega constellations with thousands of satellites. As space gets more congested, the number of times another satellite or piece of debris flies within one kilometer of a satellite has doubled from 2,000 per month in 2017 to 4,000 per month today.

That means a growing amount of work for both military personnel, who must analyze mountains of data and alert satellite owners about any trouble, and satellite operators, who are having to move their satellites more frequently to avoid collisions.

Trump’s 2018 order aimed to lift the Pentagon’s burden and improve tracking overall. But Congress only began funding the effort last December, when it passed the 2021 omnibus spending bill. The bill contained $10 million to enable the Office of Space Commerce to get moving on a pilot space-traffic management program.

Prompted by questions this week from Defense One, members of Congress asked the Office of Space Commerce how it is planning to spend the money, but the agency referred lawmakers to an overdue spending plan that was expected 45 days after the omnibus funding bill passed in December, according to a staffer at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Lawmakers have not yet seen that plan, the staffer said.

“We are concerned that rather than taking action to obtain and compile commercially available [space situational awareness] data and utilize existing cloud computing capabilities to build an open-architecture data repository, [the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service] and the Office of Space Commerce are only commissioning further studies,” the staffer said. 

The office “plans to initiate space traffic management pilot activities,” a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the Office of Space Commerce, told Defense One in a statement.

Some in the space community hoped the Commerce Department would contract with commercial tracking companies to do the mission cheaply, allowing the government to buy the data rather than buying the sensors that collect it. One such company, Silicon Valley-based startup LeoLabs used its network of ground-based radars in January 2020 to predict two defunct satellites would pass between 13 and 87 meters of each other, a similar probability as the military’s own catalog. 

The question of whether the Commerce Department should take over this mission has already been extensively studied. Congress previously directed the National Academy of Public Administration to evaluate which agency is best suited to conduct space traffic management. 

The findings recommended that the Office of Space Commerce conduct the mission, concluding that the Defense Department system is not precise enough to meet the commercial sector’s needs and is also not scalable to handle the growing number of objects in orbit. 

“Commercial operators increasingly view today’s DoD surveillance and warning system as inadequate to achieve safe operations in today’s commercial space environment,” the report says. “It is a legacy system that is tied to [a] sensor network with software geared toward the system’s original national security purpose of providing early warning of nuclear missile attack.”

Because industry is launching at a pace with which the Pentagon system can’t keep up, Cooper worried about the potential for a collision in orbit, which could make entire areas of space unusable if they created a cloud of dangerous debris. 

“The progress with which commercial is moving forward and continuing to populate space for their purposes is outpacing spaceflight safety regime that should be following it and that’s absolutely coming with increased risk,” he said. 

The National Academy of Public Administration report also recommended that lawmakers pass legislation to authorize the shift. A proposal to do so is in the Endless Frontier Act, which is working its way through Congress. 

The lack of action is likely due to the change of administration, since many of the personnel who were pushing for this during the Trump administration are gone, said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Security World Foundation. He pointed specifically to the tumultuous transition period, and the fact that no one has been named to permanently lead the Office of Space Commerce yet.

Kevin O’Connell, the director of the Office of Space Commerce in the Trump administration, “and his staff were pushing through a change in the organization’s culture and responsibilities, and without that sort of active push for change, organizations tend to revert,” Weeden said. “It’s not that the Biden team has come in and said we’re going to go in a different direction, it’s the lack of attention.” 

Space Command did not return a request for comment, but the Pentagon has publicly said it’s eager to offload this mission. Transferring the mission to the Commerce Department, “where it can be better managed,” would allow the Defense Department to focus only on tracking priorities that affect national security, Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of U.S. Space Command, said in January.

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