U.S. Statement to Outer Space Committee

Remarks to UNCOPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee

Lieutenant Colonel Guinevere Leeder, USAF

Chief of Space Policy, United States Strategic Command
Vienna 15 Feb 2011

Space Situational Awareness Sharing Update

INTRODUCTION

Good morning Mr. Chairman and distinguished delegates.  I am Lieutenant Colonel Guinevere Leeder, Chief of Space Policy at the United States Strategic Command.  I am delighted to be able to attend this important forum as a representative of the United States and to provide you an update on one of the significant efforts we have undertaken to implement the President’s National Space Policy and the recently released Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence signed National Security Space Strategy.  The United States Strategic Command is honored to have the opportunity to participate in these discussions, as Strategic Command is directed by our national leadership to conduct space operations, 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.

For the last two years, Lieutenant General Susan Helms, then the United States Strategic Command Director of Plans and Policy, presented to the full Committee of COPUOS the United States’ perspectives on the 2009 collision between a commercial communications satellite and a non-operational satellite and on the United States efforts in sharing space situational awareness, or SSA, information and services.  Today, I will present an update on those SSA activities, and provide some of the measures we have taken to improve transparency in our efforts to help preserve and ensure safety of flight within the space domain for use by all space-faring nations.

A NEW NATIONAL SPACE POLICY

Last summer the United States released a new National Space Policy.  This document set the United States on a new course for the conduct of space activities.  It challenges us to “enhance security, stability, and responsible behavior in space.”   In fact, the first principle of the National Space Policy addresses the “shared interest” all nations have, “to act responsibly in space to prevent mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust.”  A key component of this policy is its increased emphasis on expanding international cooperation and collaboration.  Such opportunities include cooperation to mitigate orbital debris, share space situational awareness information, improve information sharing for collision avoidance, and develop transparency and confidence building measures.

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 exploration 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 safely.

When we designed our SSA sharing program, we first and foremost wanted to identify the efforts necessary to prevent another satellite collision in space that would threaten the sustainability of the space environment.  Additionally, we wanted to support safe and responsible operations by all space operators.  By engaging in an extensive dialogue with industry and international partners, we are identifying the necessary information that satellite and launch operators need to conduct responsible space operations.  In the process, our SSA sharing program is a transparency and confidence-building measure demonstrating the United States Strategic Command’s commitment to the principles and goals within the National Space Policy and the National Security Space Strategy.

TODAY’S SITUATION

Today, we are tracking and cataloging over 22,000 objects.  Of those 22,000 trackable objects, about 1,100 of them are active satellites, and many of them cannot maneuver.  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 harm satellites and degrade operations.  In 2010,  space-faring entities conducted 74 launches, placing 107 payloads satellites into orbit.

Maintaining a timely picture of the space domain becomes more difficult as space becomes increasingly congested.  The United States may have an extensive network of space surveillance sensors, but as our National Space Policy implicitly acknowledges, no one nation has the resources or geographic position necessary to precisely track every space object.  We must collaborate with other nations, the private sector, and intergovernmental organizations to improve our space situational awareness – specifically, to improve our shared ability to rapidly detect, warn, characterize, and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems.

SSA SHARING PROGRAM

Just over a year ago, the United States Strategic Command assumed the responsibility of a new program to provide SSA services and information to commercial entities and international governments.  This new program allows us to collaborate more effectively on space situational awareness and collision avoidance.  This program is designed to increase the safety, security, and sustainability of the space domain through an enhanced understanding of satellite positional information.  Two of our goals within this program are to provide improved sharing of relevant satellite positional information and to promote overall space flight safety through new cooperative partnerships.

Our SSA sharing program consists of three levels of SSA services:  a basic service consisting of information posted to an internet website and available to a diverse set of users; advanced services available to satellite and launch operators and governmental entities that own those satellites under a negotiated agreement; and emergency notifications alerting satellite operators to hazardous situations.

The portal for the basic services is the website known as www dot space dash track dot org.  The website’s purpose is to make satellite positional and orbital information widely available.  This information is available to any individual, company, or government, and is provided free of charge.  We maintain comprehensive databases so that we can conduct analysis to predict close approaches between objects, and if required, provide a notification to the appropriate satellite owners and operators.

The database contains a listing of historical and current Two Line Element Sets that describe the satellite’s position and orbit at a moment in time.  The website also provides information such as satellite decay and re-entry data.  All of this data is free of charge on the website.  The procedures to request an agreement for 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 two-way advanced data exchanges, we must establish 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 to their operations, and we can provide support as long as we have the resources available, and the provision of those services is consistent with U. S. national security interests.

The agreements 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 Joint Space Operations Center, or 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 develop a focused screening calculation or to assess an operator’s planned maneuver for any resulting close approaches.  We currently have 19 agreements in place with commercial companies around the world.  These agreements help us develop relationships between our JSpOC and the commercial company operations centers.  We have not signed any government-to-government agreements, but as this aspect of the program moves forward in the coming months, we look forward to the opportunity to engage with your governments and begin the dialog on mutually beneficial SSA sharing.  It should be noted, however, that all foreign governments can take advantge of the basic services available at the website noted on the previous slide.

Because we are committed to supporting safe space-flight operations and taking the necessary actions to prevent future collisions, we 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.  To mitigate a possible collision risk, we provide notifications of potentially dangerous situations to satellite owners and operators.

Every day the JSpOC analyzes the orbits of the approximately 1,100 active satellites, and this analysis results in 20 to 30 close approaches that require alerts to the appropriate satellite operators and further analysis.

The JSpOC promptly notifies the affected satellite operator of the potential hazard using an e-mail notification which contains the predicted time of closest approach, the projected miss distance parameters, and some of the computational error values in the prediction.

Last July, we began providing emergency notification using a new format, which we call the Conjunction Summary Message.  While I know you cannot read the message on the screen, I wanted to demonstrate the vast increase in the information we are providing with this new message format.  We listened to comments from operators who received the e-mail alerts, and we developed this message format as a response.  The Conjunction Summary Message provides an operator with the information necessary to determine for themselves if a maneuver is required to avoid a collision.  To facilitate an understanding of this new message format and the analysis behind it, we led two Conjunction Summary workshops last year, one in the United States and one in Germany, where we gathered diverse groups of satellite operators to meet with our subject matter experts.  We described the message, how and why it was developed, and its recommended use.    This became a useful venue for sharing ideas on topics such as SSA sharing, the development of international message standards, and for developing operational relationships and building trust.  We intend to convene two more workshops this year to further the dialogue.

We received positive feedback on this new message and it fostered improved information sharing between operations centers.  As an example, satellite operators now routinely provide the JSpOC their own positional data or maneuver plans for their satellites.  This data is used to re-evaluate a prediction or to assess new collision risks for planned maneuvers.

Ideally, we hope to have agreements with all space-faring entities to establish two-way information exchanges, to facilitate rapid notifications of space hazards, and to provide other services that promote responsible operations.  But until then, we will continue to issue emergency notifications to the appropriate satellite operators when we predict a dangerous situation.

WAY AHEAD

While we have made significant improvements in our SSA Sharing program and related efforts, we know these are only small steps down a longer road.  The menu of services we offer has room for expansion and improvement as we learn more about the way space operators are using the website and our services.

The United States viewed the 2009 Iridium – Cosmos 2251 satellite collision and other debris-causing events as a wake-up call; serious warnings that indicate that we all must carefully consider our behavior with regard to space operations.  For our part, we improved internal processes, expanded our computational capability and analyst personnel, and offered SSA services to assist other entities.  These changes improved our capacity to analyze orbits of objects in space, to predict potential hazards to spacecraft, and to engage in dialog with individual satellite operators to share information and provide valuable services.  Future cooperative partnerships with governments offer additional opportunities to share SSA data and ensure a safer space environment for all space-faring nations.

As we move forward, we must continue to promote responsible space operations of all space-faring entities.  Actions of one operator in space may affect every space user, and any one of us could be a victim of a collision with debris.

As I mentioned previously, the United States supports the development of voluntary and pragmatic measures to ensure the sustainable use of outer space, including expanded information sharing to enhance spaceflight safety.   As a result, we are greatly encouraged with the direction of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee’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 space-faring 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.  At United States Strategic Command, we hope that our SSA sharing program helps this discussion by demonstrating an approach that is providing useful and timely information to support responsible operations around the world.

I’d like to close by expressing my sincere gratitude for the opportunity to speak to you today and present some of the major SSA sharing improvements we’ve made in the last year.  Still, these are simply incremental steps, and we know there is 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.  Thank you.