Satellite Collisions – Space Traffic Control System Needed

green and white leafed plantsSatellite Collisions – Space Traffic Control System Needed

The recent collision of a U.S.-operated Iridium satellite and a Russian spacecraft has spotlighted the need for an International Civil Space Situational Awareness system.

The concept was proposed February 17 in Vienna, Austria during the 46th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

Brian Weeden, Technical Consultant for Secure World Foundation (SWF), noted the February 10 collision of the two satellites resulted in the generation of space junk that now circles Earth and threatens spacecraft from a host of nations.

“This collision is yet another example of the potential fragility of Earth orbit and the need for increased awareness,” Weeden told the subcommittee.

Root Cause of Last Week’s Collision

Weeden used the example of driving a car with the windows blacked out. Even with a GPS device to display the car’s position on the road and not having information available about the locations or actions of other cars.

“This environment of limited information is the same in which many of the satellites in Earth orbit are operated today,” Weeden said. “The owner or operator of a particular satellite usually has excellent knowledge about the position of that satellite in space, but little to no information about the locations of other objects around them,” he added.

“This problem was the root cause behind last week’s collision of a U.S. commercial satellite and a Russian spacecraft – the owner of the satellite which could have maneuvered did not know about the impending close approach,” Weeden explained.

Weeden advised the subcommittee that, unfortunately, most actors in space do not have the resources or capacity to provide the critical space situational awareness information necessary to make safe and secure decisions regarding actions in space.

“The few States that do have the resources to provide this information,” Weeden said, “are often limited by national security or military restrictions from sharing it with other actors.”

Tools Needed

SWF believes that the solution to this problem is the creation of an International Civil Space Situational Awareness system. The goal of this system would be to provide all space actors access to the tools needed for safe and sustainable activity in Earth orbit.

The two key tools this system would provide are sensor data and analytical capacity to utilize that data in decision-making processes.

The concept of space situational awareness (SSA) is not new – it has been an important part of military space activities for several years. But like many other types of information, there is also a need for SSA in the civil world.

The fundamental difference between the international civil SSA system SWF is advocating and that used by the military is in the types of information provided. Civil SSA only needs to focus on the location of an object in Earth orbit and a point of contact for that object, along with information about space weather.

The additional military requirements of determining function, intent, and capabilities and limitations are not intended to be part of a civil SSA system.

Global Sensor Coverage

The Foundation believes that such a system needs to be international in both its creation and operations, Weeded advised the subcommittee. Accurate tracking of all objects in Earth orbit requires a geographically distributed network of both radar and optical telescopes.

“Such a network is very expensive to create and maintain, and only the United States has thus far developed one,” Weeden pointed out. “And while the United States’ space surveillance network does provide the most complete SSA data in the world, it still has significant limitations due to the lack of coverage in areas where the United States does not have a presence.”

In addition to global sensor coverage, an international civil SSA system must also include data from commercial satellite owner-operators: these entities have data on the locations of their satellites more accurate than any ground-based sensor could obtain.

“The key to making such a system work is in the data sharing model,” Weeden said.

Central Clearing House

One potential model would have each participant in the system choosing what data they provide to a central clearing house. All participants would have access to all of the shared data in the clearing house, enabling them to do their own independent analysis. All participants would also have access to analytical support from the central data clearing house to offset the lack of indigenous capability.

“Many States, working together in a voluntary partnership with commercial partners, could provide the necessary data to all actors,” Weeden said. “This information could not only mitigate future collisions but enhance cooperation, transparency and future space governance issues.”

SWF is eager to work with organizations around the world to explore the possibility of an international civil space situational awareness system, along with other options and proposals that will enable safe and secure activities in Earth orbit.

For a briefing by SWF’s Brian Weeden on International Civil Space Situational Awareness, see:

Brian Weeden’s notes on International Civil Space Situational Awareness, a presentation to 46th Session of Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in Vienna, Austria, February 17, 2009 are available at:

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