DoD, Commerce sign framework for space monitoring cooperation

President Biden Previews First Images From Webb Space Telescope

Vice President Kamala Harris is the head of the National Space Council. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Defense and Commerce Departments have finalized a framework agreement for cooperation on space monitoring, a senior Commerce Department official said today.

“I’m happy to announce that with our partners at the DoD, we’ve signed a memorandum of understanding of agreement that will drive our mutual work,” Don Graves, Commerce deputy director, told the second public meeting of the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris.

“And that’s really going to allow us to have not just a basic level of space traffic awareness, it will also allow us to drive the research, the innovation that we all know we need to maximize the space environment for future generations,” he added.

The memorandum, whose existence was first reported by Breaking Defense in June, is designed to help ease the transfer of authority for helping non-military operators keep their spacecraft safe from on-orbit collisions from US Space Command to the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC).

According to a DoD press release, the joint memorandum is “formalizing the organizations’ relationship for basic space situational awareness (SSA), space traffic management (STM), and coordination for civil and commercial entities.”

It was signed by Gen. James Dickinson, SPACECOM commander; Gen. Jay Raymond, chief of the Space Force; John Plumb, new DoD assistant secretary for space policy; and Richard Spinrad, Commerce undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere.

On its face, say government officials, the memorandum is very, very vague — “an agreement to reach future agreements,” as one official told Breaking Defense.

“It’s a nothing burger,” said another official familiar with its contents.

On the other hand, others said, it does represent a first step that allows OSC to get its long-stalled process rolling forward — and it cements cooperative intent on the part of both agencies.

Further, the idea is that the framework could be followed by subsequent agreements that include how Space Force and/or SPACECOM will share funds, personnel and/or technology to help OSC stand up a civil structure for SSA. (That said, up to now, the Pentagon has been leery of making any such resource commitments.)

The Trump Administration’s 2018 Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) ordered the transfer of space object tracking and collision warning authority for civil and commercial space to Commerce in order to free the military to focus on growing threats to US space assets, especially from Russia and China. The Commerce Department subsequently tapped OSC, which sits under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to do the job —with the intent of elevating that office to its own bureau to enable creation of a civil regime for space traffic management (STM) to ensure safe operations.

Graves said that the department is “starting a series of important space situational awareness data buys, including Low Earth Orbit and Geostationary data, and we’re going to follow that up with other awards focused on those and other orbital regimes.”

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Specifically, Commerce has contracted LeoLabs, a private firm that monitors spacecraft and dangerous debris, to provide data and analysis in LEO.

“Under this contract, LeoLabs will provide its operationally proven tracking and conjunction alert data products for a subset of Resident Space Objects (RSOs), including both real-time and archived data sets. The Department of Commerce will utilize these orbital data products to support testing and evaluation of a prototype STM [space traffic management] system,” the company said in a press release today. No contract value was released.

Further, Graves said, Commerce this fall “will conduct an all-commercial pilot program that will seek to replicate a portion of the DoD basic safety services using only commercial data and analytical services.”

Beyond STM

Today’s National Space Council also focused heavily on Harris’s recently announced interagency effort to develop rules to govern “novel” commercial space activities — such as on-orbit serving, assembly and manufacturing— as well as those that up to now have fallen between regulatory cracks.

“Such novel activities will enable America’s continued leadership in space,” Harris said. “But because these capabilities are so new, few rules currently exist to ensure that they are conducted safely, effectively and sustainably. Which is why, in consultation with civil and commercial stakeholders, our administration is currently developing the first rules-based framework for novel space activities.”

While the discussion is still in its early stages, Harris stressed that any new rules also need to be “flexible” to ensure innovation can continue to flourish.

White House-led efforts to get a handle on how to deal with the problem of both promoting innovative commercial space activities while also ensuring proper governance — meaning both supervision and mission authorization (read licensing) — have been churning since at least 2015. And the Biden administration has doubled down on the issue.

In a recent example, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) launched an interagency working group on on-orbit servicing in October 2021, and in April 2022 issued the “National Strategy for In-space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (ISAM)” [PDF].

But the issue is complicated by the fact that a number of different US government departments and organizations have statutory authority over different pieces of the regulatory puzzle — each of which has its own boosters in Congress.

These include NOAA, which regulates commercial remote sensing; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulated use of spectrum; and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates launch and recovery of spacecraft.

And no agency has responsibility for on-orbit servicing or other activities that do not involve spectrum use or imaging systems.

As a result, progress has been stalled by bureaucratic and congressional tussles over Who’s On First.

The Biden administration is hoping Harris’ interagency initiative can get beyond the wrangling, one administration source said, in part by focusing the agencies on the things that they are already empowered to do to help sort out the gaps, rather than on what new responsibilities they’d like to garner.

To that end, Harris asked the council members to each provide the council with “a proposal for the authorization and supervision of commercial novel space activities within 180 days” that include “how we will ensure space operations abide by space safety norms and protocols.”

One positive sign during the meeting was the fact that the council meeting included the FCC, which is an independent agency not under White House control. The FCC over the past several years has been stretching its reach into the current regulatory lacuna for commercial space operations. On Sept. 8, the FCC proposed changing its requirements to demand that licensees de-orbit their spacecraft in LEO within five years, rather than the current government-wide standard of 25 years.

“This is the first time the FCC is joining the National Space Council. I think that’s a good thing, because we’re doing a lot to help grow commercial space policy in the 21st century,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenwercel.

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