Remarks on Outer Space
Maj Gen Susan Helms, USAF
Director of Plans and Policy, United States Strategic Command
Good morning Mr. Chairman and distinguished delegates. I’m Major General Susan Helms, Director of Plans and Policy at the United States Strategic Command.
I am delighted to return this year to this important forum as a representative of the United States. The United States Strategic Command is honored to have the opportunity to participate in these discussions, as the Command is directed by our national leadership to monitor and track space objects, and to provide Space Situational Awareness information to United States government, civil agencies, and as appropriate, commercial, and international entities.
Last year, I presented the United States’ perspectives on the 2009 collision between a commercial communications satellite and a non-operational Russian satellite. Today, I will present an update on the situation, and also provide some of the measures we have taken to improve transparency in our efforts to help preserve the space domain for use by all spacefaring nations. Specifically, I will highlight improvements in the sharing of space situational awareness information in order to promote safe and responsible space operations.
The United States remains committed to the long-standing principles, including those in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which provide the fundamental guidelines for the free access to, and use of, space by all nations for peaceful purposes. We believe that any collision in space threatens every nation’s ability to explore and use space for such purposes. Because of these beliefs, the United States has increased its capacity to share awareness of the space environment in such a way as to support the long-term sustainability of safe space operations for all spacefaring nations. Furthermore, we are emphasizing the important role of international cooperation to enhance safe space operations and shared security interests.
In the conduct of space operations, it is imperative that we understand the space environment, and the persistent changes occurring in that environment. When I spoke to you last year, the United States Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center was tracking over 19,000 objects daily. Today, we are tracking over 21,000 objects, an increase of 2,000 objects in just one year. Of those 21,000 trackable objects, only about 1,000 of them are active satellites. In addition, there is still an indeterminate amount of small debris for which we cannot generate reliable, consistent orbital estimates. Despite their small size, these pieces of debris can also harm satellites and degrade operations. Over the past year, spacefaring nations have conducted 70 launches, placing over 100 satellites into orbit. Such frequent changes in the space environment require persistent and dedicated space situational awareness capabilities and operations.
Maintaining a timely picture of the space domain becomes more difficult as space becomes increasingly congested. We face many challenges as we strive to improve our current knowledge and predictive ability to determine what is occurring in space.
The United States may have an extensive network of space surveillance sensors, but no one nation has the necessary resources or geography to precisely track every object. Therefore, we understand that improved space situational awareness will ultimately come from international cooperation and information sharing. Effective information sharing requires finding middle ground on a common lexicon, and standard types of data formats. That is a significant challenge by itself. As we work with both government and commercial operators, we are discovering that each operator has unique procedures, timelines, and formats.
Security continues to be a significant consideration. Our space capabilities underpin domestic and global interests such as commerce, and we must ensure we protect those equities. Procedures for sharing SSA information on any basis must include measures to ensure the integrity of information among partners.
As I said last year in this forum, the United States Strategic Command took a hard look at its internal collision avoidance and prediction processes following the satellite collision that occurred in February 2009. The United States has been, and will continue to be, a leader in identifying potential hazards in space, and so we have implemented new transparency and confidence-building measures. In addition to internal process improvements, we have expanded computational capability, and added personnel. These changes have improved our capacity to analyze orbits of objects in space as well as our ability to predict potential hazards to spacecraft.
Just seven months ago, the United States Strategic Command assumed the responsibility of a new program to provide SSA services to commercial entities and international governments. This new program allows us to collaborate more effectively on space situational awareness. Our goals with this program are to provide transparency into satellite positional information and to promote overall space-flight safety through new cooperative partnerships.
Our new program consists of three SSA services: a basic service consisting of information posted to an internet website, advanced services available to entities under a negotiated agreement, and emergency notifications alerting satellite operators to hazardous situations.
Last year I presented information about a website where registered users could find satellite data. This year I am happy to tell you that U.S. Strategic Command now has oversight of that website, know as www.space-track.org. The website’s purpose is to make widely available satellite positional and orbital information. We maintain this and other databases so that we can conduct analysis to predict close approaches between objects, and if required, provide a notification to the appropriate satellite operators.
The database contains a listing of historical and current Two Line Element Sets as well as satellite decay and re-entry data, free of charge. The procedures to request our advanced services are also on this website.
Advanced services make up the second service level of the SSA Sharing program. Advanced Services are designed to support safe space-flight operations during launch and on-orbit operations. In order to permit advanced data exchanges, we must seek the establishment of international cooperative partnerships through written, formal agreements with satellite owners and operators, launch providers, and other partners. With an agreement in place, entities may request specific support elements to their operations, and we will provide that support as long as we have the resources available, and the provision of those services is consistent with national security interests. This two-way exchange of information is a new aspect of the program, which should further the goal of a cooperative approach to the management of space debris.
Through the agreement process, we hope to advance a dialogue on terminology and data formats. The agreements also provide mutual contact information for one another’s operations centers. When an agreement is in place, the owner or operator can work closely with our operations center, known as the JSpOC, to mitigate collision risks for their spacecraft. For example, this might include the owner or operator providing more accurate ephemeris data so that the JSpOC can use this in a focused screening calculation or to assess a planned maneuver for resulting close approaches. Since the SSA Sharing Program has just begun, we only have a handful of agreements in place with commercial companies and have not yet signed an international government-to-government agreement. As this program moves forward in the coming months, we look forward to the opportunity to engage with your governments.
Because we are committed to supporting safe space-flight operations, we have developed our third level of service, the emergency notifications process. There are occasions when two objects may approach each other at an uncomfortably close distance, and to mitigate a possible collision risk, we recently began to provide notifications of potentially dangerous situations to satellite owners and operators, within established legal and policy guidelines.
When the JSpOC predicts a close approach between two objects, one of which is an active satellite, we now attempt to promptly notify the affected satellite operator of the potential hazard and provide the predicted time of closest approach, and the projected miss distance parameters. We now analyze the orbits of all active satellites, and this daily catalog analysis results in 20 to 30 close approach notifications per day. We have increased our capacity to provide this information in a timely manner to owners and operators around the world. As an example, when operators provide their own positional data or maneuver plan for their satellites, the JSpOC can re-evaluate the prediction using that information and provide an updated result. The United States also hopes that these efforts ensure that collisions and other unforeseen incidents involving space activities do not lead to misinterpretation or miscalculation.
Ideally, we will have agreements with many spacefaring entities to establish two-way information exchanges, to facilitate rapid notifications of space hazards, and to provide other services that will promote safe space-flight operations.
While we have made significant improvements in our SSA and related sharing efforts, we know these are only small steps down a longer road. The menu of services we now offer has room for expansion and improvement as we learn more about the way operators are using our data on the website and our emergency notifications. In related efforts, and in conjunction with other U.S. Government agencies, Strategic Command is engaged in technical exchanges with experts from Europe and spacefaring nations around the world to explore opportunities for expanded cooperation on space situational awareness.
As we move forward with the SSA Sharing Program, we will need your assistance. To ensure timely notifications, the United States Department of State intends to reach out in the coming weeks to all spacefaring nations to ensure that the JSpOC has current contact information for both government and private sector satellite operations centers. Over the next year or two, our team will begin reaching out to international and commercial partners to seek a dialogue and agreement for information exchange.
These partnerships will ultimately benefit all of us and improve our collective ability to promote space-flight safety and safe space operations for all.
The United States recognized the 2009 collision and other debris-causing events as a wake-up call, serious warnings that indicate that we all must consider our behavior with regard to space operations. As we move forward, we must promote responsible space operations of all spacefaring entities. Actions of one operator in space may affect each and every space user, and any one of us could be a victim of an unavoidable collision with debris.
The United States supports the development of voluntary and pragmatic information-sharing and confidence building mechanisms. We are greatly encouraged with the direction of the Scientific and Technical Committee’s multi-year study on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. This forum will provide a valuable opportunity for cooperation with established and emerging members of the spacefaring community and with the private sector to establish a set of best practice guidelines that will enhance space-flight safety and help preserve the space environment for future generations.
One of the crucial elements of any set of best practices should be the responsibility of nations to take the necessary steps to minimize debris caused by routine launch and satellite operations. These best practices could expand on the excellent precedent established in the Orbital Debris Mitigation Guidelines. Best practices could also address common lexicon and standards for data, the publishing of satellite positional information, and the establishment of best practices for emergency situations whereby satellite operators and governments provide notification and compare information for emerging situations that could pose a hazard to the space domain. The United States has been and will continue to be involved in fruitful exchanges with other governments and international organizations on proposals for increased transparency and confidence-building measures, and for the development of widely-accepted best practices for safe space operations.
As a resident of the International Space Station for over 210 days, I very well understand the importance of common courtesies, information sharing, and international cooperation.
Fortunately, we have collectively advanced the discussion on increased cooperation and transparency, and the United States looks forward to all future discussions that promote the long-term sustainability of space activities.
I’d like to close by expressing my sincere gratitude for the opportunity to speak here again. I’m excited to be here today and present to you some of the major improvements we’ve made in the last year. Still, these are simply incremental steps, and we know there is much more work to do.
We in the United States Strategic Command look forward to taking part in further dialogue and collaborative opportunities with all member nations for the betterment of all peaceful uses of space.