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Space Situational Awareness in the Era of Megaconstellations

By Mark Dickinson | May 7, 2018

      At the SATELLITE 2018 Conference & Exhibition, I joined a panel to discuss Space Situational Awareness (SSA), something that was particularly pertinent given a certain incident that week involving a smallsat operator. The problem is, as we move into the era of nanosat and CubeSats, the barriers to entry are low and many of these operators aren’t fully aware of the regulations and international standards that they need to adhere to.

      I was pleased with the amount of engaging dialogue on the panel, which aside from me included David Ball, CEO of the Space Environment Research Center (SERC), Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director at the Secure World Foundation, and Frank Rose, Senior Director and Chief of Government Relations, the Aerospace Corporation. Mansat’s chairman and CEO, Chris Stott did an excellent job of moderating and keeping the questions focused.

      Due Diligence

      With space becoming ever more crowded, I pointed out that all operators need increased awareness of their roles, responsibilities and the operational best practices, whatever their orbital regime or whether launching a single nanosat or a constellation of many thousands. A study by the University of Southampton has estimated that megaconstellations will increase the risk of collision by as much as 50 percent.

      This led onto the tricky subject of guidelines and regulation. Ball commented that we need to develop better international guidelines for long-term sustainability. However, Samson said that guidelines aren’t enough and that self-regulation isn’t working. She feels that we need regulation and that we need the owner operators to buy into the need for that regulation, if we are really going to make headway in this arena.

      In my opinion, the most critical aspect to be able to improve our SSA capabilities is having increased and better sensor capabilities, coupled with state-of-the-art data processing tools. Although there are many sensors in existence today, we need to be able to fuse and cross calibrate data from them all to be able to provide operators with the most accurate and actionable warnings possible.

      Collaboration and Transparency

      The conversation was dominated by the need for global collaboration. That is pretty key, given that the risk of collision is not limited geographically. Rose made the point that we will need a common language around what the operators will disclose. He also commented that we need processes in place before the mega constellations really take root.

      However, global collaboration will not be easy. With certain nations not willing to share data, how do we engage them to improve that, especially in those areas where there are political drivers? As Ball pointed out, we also need closer collaboration between government and the commercial industry.

      As I discussed at the panel, what also is needed is transparency. If we aggregate multiple sets of data in a transparent way, we can ensure accuracy. But that means knowing where the data has come from, its accuracy, and timeliness. If the data is transparent, then it becomes actionable, whether that is around space weather, radio frequency interference, or possible collisions.

      Using the Data

      As Samson pointed out, “data is only as good as what you do with it.” She highlighted the potential for a big data problem, where operators get CA warnings when they are not needed and they don’t understand how to react to data delivered. This is an issue we have highlighted recently as becoming more pronounced. As space becomes more congested, with more objects, and likely more CA warnings, it will only become more of an issue. Without associated covariance information, it is very difficult to know what operational decisions are correct. Even with using multiple data sources to track objects, only the operators themselves know any future manoeuvre plans. Therefore, it is vital that they share their ephemerides in a pooling mechanism, such as the Space Data Center, and that it is updated on a regular and timely basis.

      One thing is clear, both from this panel and from discussions we have had over recent months, SSA is at the forefront of people’s minds. Operators globally understand the importance and know the status quo needs to be improved. Now, we need to ensure cooperation from the entire industry, and together with government entities, on a global scale. As Samson said, SSA is more important now than ever.

      Mark Dickinson, Inmarsat Mark Dickinson is the vice president of satellite operations at Inmarsat as well as the chairman of the Space Data Association (SDA), a non-profit association that brings together satellite operators who value controlled, reliable and efficient data-sharing critical to the safety and integrity of the space environment and RF spectrum. The SDA was founded by commercial satellite operators for the benefit of the satellite community.