Panel on Space Situational Awareness
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
Thank you for your kind introduction. It is a pleasure to participate in this symposium. This is actually my first time at the National Space Symposium, and I now understand why my staff always asks to attend.
I’m also particularly pleased to be able to participate in this panel on space situational awareness. The recent concern over the proximity of debris from the 2007 Chinese ASAT test to the International Space Station highlights the critical importance of space situational awareness in preventing devastating collisions.
While many within the United States may think that space situational awareness, or SSA, is purely a Department of Defense issue, the State Department also plays a crucial role because international cooperation is necessary to ensure that we have robust situational awareness of the space environment. In fact, the President’s National Space Policy directs U.S. Government departments and agencies to collaborate with other nations as well as the private sector and non-governmental organizations to improve our space situational awareness – in particular, to improve our shared ability to rapidly detect, warn of, characterize, and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems.
There are many ways that international cooperation enhances our shared SSA. General Helms discussed our efforts to share data through the SSA Sharing Program and through emergency notifications; I will explain how the State Department supports those efforts. I will also discuss the various multilateral and bilateral engagements on space situational awareness. Finally, I will discuss other international initiatives that work to enhance SSA such as the European Union’s proposal for an international Code of Conduct and the agenda item on Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities within the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
Cooperation to Prevent Collisions
One way that international cooperation enhances SSA is the information exchange with satellite owners and operators to prevent future collisions. As General Helms discussed, the United States provides notifications to other governments and commercial satellite operators of potentially hazardous conjunctions between orbiting objects. The State Department continues to be extremely supportive of U.S. Strategic Command’s efforts to establish two-way information exchanges with foreign satellite operators and to facilitate rapid notifications of potential space hazards.
The United States is constantly seeking to improve its ability to share information with other space-faring nations as well as with our commercial sector partners. For example, the Department of State is currently reaching out to all space-faring nations to ensure that the Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC, has current contact information for both government and private sector satellite operations centers. Those efforts include ongoing discussions with Russia on measures to enhance safety for robotic space missions as well as for human spaceflight.
Across the United States government, we are supporting numerous multilateral and bilateral engagements in space situational awareness. For example, the United States is collaborating with our friends and allies in Europe as they consider developing their own SSA system. The State Department, in collaboration with Department of Defense, is currently engaged in technical exchanges with experts from the European Space Agency, the European Union, and individual ESA and EU Member States to ensure our existing and planned SSA systems contribute to a more comprehensive situational awareness picture to ensure the safety, stability, and security of the space domain. In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense has signed bilateral SSA statements of principles with Canada, France, and Australia. Looking ahead, the United States also sees opportunities for cooperation on SSA with other nations around the globe.
International “Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities”
Transparency and confidence-building measures, or TCBMs, also have the potential of enhancing our knowledge of the space environment. In our implementation of the President’s 2010 National Space Policy, the United States has been pursuing TCBMs to strengthen stability in space. For instance, the United States is continuing to consult with the European Union on its initiative to develop an international Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. We hope to make a decision in the near term as to whether the United States can sign on to the Code. That said, while the United States has yet to make a final decision, we see such a Code of Conduct to be fully consistent with both the President’s National Space Policy and existing U.S. practices to promote the responsible use of space.
An example where a Code of Conduct could contribute to our shared SSA is its political commitment to provide notifications in a timely manner of malfunctions that might place space objects at risk, as well as any accidents or collisions that have taken place.
As I previously noted, the United States is already following such practices – as we did when we promptly notified Russia through diplomatic channels when the U.S. space surveillance network detected the collision of a commercial Iridium satellite with an inoperable Russian military spacecraft in February 2009. As a result, non-legally binding measures such as the proposed Code of Conduct could build on our existing practices as well as U.S. and allied SSA capabilities by mitigating the risk of mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust.
Cooperation on “Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities”
Another initiative that will hopefully enhance SSA is the multi-year study of “long-term sustainability of space activities” within the Scientific and Technical Sub-Committee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). We anticipate the formation of expert working groups to support this study. One of these expert working groups will focus on space debris, space operations, and tools for collaborative SSA while another will focus on space weather, thereby addressing the range of potential hazards to earth-orbiting satellites. We are hopeful that this effort will lead to the formation of voluntary “best practice guidelines,” which will help reduce operational risks to all space systems. In addition to drawing on the expertise of spaceflight experts, this study also will draw upon the background and “best practice guidelines” that have been developed by U.S. commercial satellite operators.
Space situational awareness is essential to ensure stability in space and sustainability of our space activities. To this end, the United States is striving to improve our ability to monitor, track, and provide notifications regarding space objects. However, our picture of the space environment is greatly enhanced through international cooperation. Examples of this cooperation include sharing SSA information as well as pursuing initiatives such as the EU’s proposal for an international Code of Conduct and the COPUOS Agenda Item on Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities. Such cooperation with established and emerging members of the space-faring community and with the private sector will help to preserve the space environment for the benefit of all nations and future generations.