Study Finds FAA Could Take Over Space Situational Awareness from Air Force

In addition to active satellites, a large number of items of debris that originated from collisions, decommissioned satellites or the spent upper stages of launch vehicles are currently in Earth orbit. Credit: ESA.
In addition to active satellites, a large number of items of debris that originated from collisions, decommissioned satellites or the spent upper stages of launch vehicles are currently in Earth orbit. Credit: ESA.

A Department of Transportation (DOT) review has found that it would be possible for it to take over responsibility for space situational awareness from the U.S. Air Force.

George Nield, FAA associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST), told a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that the DOT review supports developing an implementation plan as soon as possible.

The Air Force currently handles space situational awareness, which involves tracking objects in orbit and determining whether collisions are likely. Air Force officials have said they want the service to get out of the business of being an orbital traffic cop so it can focus on national security issues.

The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act passed last year ordered the DOT to study whether the department would be capable of taking over the duties.

Nield said implementation would likely start with a small pilot program that would examine how the transition could be best accomplished. The Air Force would continue to operate radars and telescopes that track space objects; it would feed the information to FAA for analysis.

Although not everyone is on board with the idea, Nield said that senior Air Force and Defense Department officials are very supportive of the change.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who also addressed COMSTAC during its meeting last week, said it is not a matter of whether to transition space situational awareness from the military but how.

The shift is mandated in Bridenstine’s proposed American Space Renaissance Act. The measure also calls for the U.S. to designate a lead agency for space traffic management, which involves reviewing and managing the orbits that satellites use. The bill does not specifiy which agency should take over traffic management.

Bridenstine said the problems of space debris and on-orbit collisions are becoming increasingly serious. The amount of debris in widely used orbits ranging from 700 to 900 km will increase as a result of collisions even if nothing is launched into these areas of space, he added.

Bridenstine warned that an on-orbit collision that takes out a valuable national security payload could produce draconian regulations that would severely damage a booming commercial satellite industry.

He also said that China and Russia are both developing anti-satellite and co-orbiting technologies designed to take out valuable military and commercial spacecraft. A Russian satellite has been roaming around geosynchronous orbit examining communications satellites there.

  • Ray Baker

    We should all be very concerned if the FAA assumes responsibility for this critical national service. All one has to do is read the NTSB report on SpaceShipTwo to see that the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is incapable of executing such an effort successfully. The FAA was supposed to be protecting the public during testing of SpaceShipTwo, and yet debris from the vehicle nearly struck two automobiles. I find it hard to believe that this organization could take on the much more complex job of tracking orbital debris and recommending evasive actions for assets at risk.