Future of SSA/STM
While SSA/STM has traditionally sat within a military setting, particularly in the US, in recent years it has become associated with a more diverse set of providers. Private companies now supply commercial data to operators. This change has also been recognized at government level. In June 2018, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3, which proposes to shift the responsibility for providing SSA data to satellite operators from the DoD to the Department of Commerce (DoC). The DoC would therefore be responsible for handling the information warning satellite operators of potential collisions. There are a number of benefits that could be felt from this change in policy. First, it will allow the DoD to focus its efforts on national security considerations and not deal with the increasing day-to-day activities resulting from the rising number of satellites and operators. Second, this move creates an opportunity for the DoC to engage with international partners in a way that the DoD was unable to as the data will no longer be behind a military firewall and it has a commercial focus, which alters the opportunity landscape for the EU.
The difficulty in understanding exactly what the impact of this move will be on international STM cooperation is that there is still no firm decision as to how this will be organized in the US. While the proposal is for the work to move to the DoC, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also fighting for the authority over civil STM, and the debate over which organization will ultimately be successful is still ongoing. Either way, it is unlikely that the DoD will continue to be the main point of contact for STM data. It is also important to recognize the difficulties that could arise during the military-to-civilian transition, particularly in terms of communication and continuity of service over an extended transition period.
Over the next few years there is likely to be an increase in SSA/STM activities by states that are beginning to play a major role in space, whether through the number of satellites in orbit and/or through commercial launch services. An example of such a state is India. In February 2017, India launched 104 satellites on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Polar Satellite Launch vehicle, and as a result it is now one of the leaders in the provision of commercial space launches. It is essential that India and other states entering this arena are included in global SSA efforts and acting responsibly. There are opportunities for Europe to lead in engaging with these actors. Commercial companies operating in this sphere will also continue to grow. Many of these will be looking to increase their geographical coverage to ensure their data is as accurate as possible and could look to partner with European states or companies. The EU could foster an environment that makes such cooperation easy, partnering with both other states and commercial providers to supply more comprehensive SSA. While a European ambition to further SSA cooperation with the US is welcome, this should not be seen in isolation or to the detriment of a move towards a more global coalition of SSA providers. With the US potentially less willing to explore partnership agreements, the EU could act as an intermediary and driver of political will for further international cooperation.