Posted: 16 September 2016, 9:15 a.m. EDT
Panelists: Moderator Brian Weeden, technical adviser, Secure World Foundation; retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James B. Armor Jr., staff vice president, Washington Operations, Orbital ATK; Mark Daniels, vice president for new technologies and service, Intelsat General Corp.; George Nield, associate administrator, Commercial Space Transportation, FAA; U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander, Air Force Space Command
by Debra Werner, Aerospace America contributing writer
The U.S. Air Force is eager to share responsibility for managing space traffic so it can devote additional resources to the job of protecting satellites essential to U.S. and allied military operations.
“Obviously we have potential adversaries that recognize the importance of space to the U.S. and its allies for national security and are increasingly developing capabilities to attempt to deny that if we ever find ourselves in conflict,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, speaking Sept. 15 at the “Space Traffic Management” forum at AIAA SPACE 2016 in Long Beach, California. “We need to guarantee we can operate in space.”
Air Force personnel could focus more effectively on that job if the service did not act as the world’s space traffic cop, providing warning to satellite operators whenever one of the 20,000 satellites or pieces of space debris threaten a collision.
The FAA is willing to take on that role if Congress provides the agency with the necessary authority and funding.
“We are ready to roll up our sleeves, partner with DOD and other stakeholders to make that work,” said George Nield, FAA assistant secretary for commercial space transportation.
Participants in the panel discussion, "Space Traffic Management," on Wednesday, 15 September, at AIAA SPACE 2016, taking place 13–16 September 2016, in Long Beach, CA.
Nield suggested that the effort begin with a pilot program that would allow the FAA to practice using data gathered by the Air Force, to demonstrate it can protect militarily sensitive information and provide collision warnings to satellite operators while the Air Force continues to offer its own collision warning.
In the long term, the space traffic management problem will only be solved through an international effort that includes the contributions of many companies, research institutions and government agencies. Initially, however, Nield recommended that the U.S. government begin addressing the problem on its own, while sharing what it is doing “very transparently” with groups around the world.
“To the extent that we get it right, we would certainly invite others in the international community to try to use the same approach,” Nield said.
That approach may worry international satellite operators who are reluctant to rely on data provided by the U.S. government, because there is no guarantee the information will always be available, said Mark Daniels, vice president for new technologies and service with Intelsat General Corp. and executive director of the Space Data Association, an organization of international satellite operators.
“We probably will have an independent, commercially available source of data to make sure that capability is available,” Daniels said.
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