Space Jam: Traffic & Coordination

June 12, 2024
Chad Anderson

Last month we hosted our annual Space Capital Summit in NYC, which gathered over 150 investors, portfolio CEOs, and industry leaders to tackle important topics like the role of AI in leveraging geospatial data, the coming impact of SpaceX's Starship, and we also took a peek over the wall into China.

The conversation I moderated was “Space Jam: Traffic and Coordination,” which focused on the growing challenge of traffic in orbit. Just a few years ago there were 800 active satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). Today there are nearly 9,000 and an estimated 100,000 satellites will launch into Earth’s orbit in this decade. This growth of space infrastructure around the globe is driving demand for space situational awareness (SSA) data and space traffic management (STM) solutions — ie. knowing where things are and coordinating safe operations. For the first time, to my knowledge, we had the full complement of folks on stage together to discuss the challenge and the opportunity: Tony Frazier, CEO of LeoLabs (leading provider of SSA data), Peter Marquez, Head of Global Space Policy at AWS (playing an increasingly important role in the distribution of SSA data for mass adoption), Siamak Hesar, CEO of Kayhan (leading platform provider for automated coordination and collision avoidance), and Rich DalBello, Director of the Office of Space Commerce (designated SSA point person from a US government perspective).

This conversation is incredibly important because space-based technologies are essential for our economic stability and national security. It is incredibly timely because activity in orbit is growing exponentially, with the majority of satellites aiming for the same few desirable orbits. The potential for collisions not only endangers costly equipment but also poses a threat to essential services that global industries have come to rely on. In this conversation we discussed what is being done to protect this critical orbital infrastructure – below are a few of the key takeaways:

There has been $250 billion invested in LEO infrastructure and the applications that leverage those orbital assets over the last decade, which has generated trillions of dollars in economic activity. Addressing the issue of timing, Frazier explained that this is not a theoretical need and highlighted that the potential for collisions not only endangers costly equipment but also poses a threat to essential services that global industries have come to rely on: “The time is really now, these services [satellite communications, geospatial intelligence, and GPS] need to be delivered, and mission continuity is really critical.” Hesar added, “looking at the data we’ve been collecting over the years, we’ve noticed that the number of conjunctions (potential collisions) between two operational satellites has increased dramatically and continues to increase.” Marquez added, “There is a known need to do this. [...] The market is there, the need for it is there, there’s too much at risk in the space environment and there’s too much at risk for all the users that are here on the ground. There’s $250 billion up in space that’s been invested, that’s a trickle compared to the actual value of what’s being done on the ground.” 

Marquez then went on to explain the importance of commercial solutions, “When I was in government, I thought the government would be able to do this and lead the way on it. I [no longer] think that’s going to be the case. I think it’s going to be a commercial need that is pushing this and it’s going to be commercial capability that’s going to lead the way in actually bringing this to the market.” Dalbello then jumped in to provide the government’s perspective saying, “We’re going to try to limit government intervention in this market to a basic safety service, so that companies like LeoLabs and Kayhan can offer more exquisite services, custom tailored services to the operators themselves. [...] It’s great that we have great commercial companies with great capability and it’s time to move this whole enterprise to the next level.” 

Frazier then highlighted the increasing rate of growth in orbit and the need to act quickly, citing the recent very near miss between a NASA satellite and a Russian Satellite saying, “This is a critical need now. It’s great that SPD-3 (Space Policy Directive-3) was released in 2018, but Moore’s Law has occurred since then and now we have an order of magnitude more objects in space, and that trend is going to continue and, so, it needs to be resourced.”

Space-based assets are essential for our economic stability and national security, and governments around the world are prioritizing their protection. For example, the G7 nations released a statement confirming orbital debris as one of the biggest challenges facing the space sector, the White House put forward a ‘Space Priorities Framework’ in which SSA/STM was one of the top three, King Charles III unveiled the Astra Carta for safe and sustainable operations in space, and there was a bipartisan bill in the US to designate space as critical infrastructure sector. With regards to the importance of international coordination, Dalbello said, “All around the world you have governments standing up SSA systems and [...] today there is no way to compare a result produced in Beijing with a result produced in Boston [...] so this is a potential for disaster.” Emphasizing the varying data and processes of different commercial systems, Siamak agreed saying, “Just like satellite operators, there are many different flavors of commercial [SSA/STM] companies and capabilities [...] If you’re not able to measure the performance of those systems, you are not able to figure out what is good enough for spaceflight safety.” Dalbello added, “At a minimum, we need a system, probably in the future, that looks more like the global banking system than it looks like air traffic control. You’re going to have millions of transactions per second, highly dispersed environment, low trust environment.”

The King unveils the Astra Carta seal at a Space Sustainability Reception  at Buckingham Palace | The Royal Family
King Charles III unveils the Astra Carta seal at a Space Sustainability Reception at Buckingham Palace (Source)

Speaking about how the industry is thinking about coordination and integration, Marquez said, “If we want to wait for countries to tell us the rules of the road… there are companies that are going to have 15,000 satellites or $50 billion worth of assets in space. I think I want to hear from them what they want to do in space and what is important to them and how they want to protect their assets and how other people want to communicate and work with them.” He continued with a word of caution, “For those of you who know the history of US policy failures in remote sensing and PNT will tell you why I’m afraid of what we might do.” The policy failures he was referring to are likely regulatory complexity, a lack of consistent and adequate funding, and strict export control regulations (such as ITAR) which limited the ability of U.S. companies to compete in the global market. But this time, with SSA/STM, Marquez believes “We have a chance to get it very right in a very good way.”

Building on Marquez’s comments, Frazier highlighted the evolving landscape, “You want to design a system to be responsive to the constituents. 20 years ago the constituents were national security and civil government operators. But now commercial is the vast majority of objects in space.” He went on to say, “As a capability provider, one thing that we’re thinking a lot about, and is important for our investors, is to make sure that whatever we build, in support of, say the US’ requirements, that we have an opportunity to export that into other countries around the world that are going to have a similar need. [...] So, once there’s cooperation at a government-to-government level, then the collaboration can be enabled through both data and software.”

We then discussed the market demand for SSA data and STM services. The DoD has historically been responsible for tracking and monitoring objects in space. With SPD-3, the White House directed Commerce to take responsibility for the publicly releasable portion of the catalog. The transition is intended to leverage the growing commercial capabilities in SSA data collection and analysis, while allowing the DoD to focus on national security aspects of SSA. TraCSS is a multi-year effort to move the federal SSA mission from the DoD into civilian hands. The Office of Space Commerce has a growing budget to build a system to accomplish this and Dalbello walked us through three different levels of user access, which are driving demand from a USG perspective: 1) an open/archival access for researchers and engineers and the interested public, 2) a special access layer for operators themselves with the ability to communicate operator-to-operator, and 3) government-to-government SSA operators talking to each other. “Everything we do in space is international. Just like the last example that we were discussing of a near crash, it was a NASA spacecraft that was non-maneuverable and a dead Russian space object. So, I mean, who owns that problem? You would hope that the answer is that all parties involved have protocols in place already, such that when something like that happens, notifications are automatic. Warnings should show up in a number of control centers.”

TraCSS is meant to rely on minimal infrastructure, so will run through AWS. Therefore, AWS is uniquely positioned between the supply and demand, to help us understand market demand. “Everyone is asking for it. Everybody’s asking for it in different ways. We’ve been able to work with Tony, Siamak and other companies to build a sort of federated platform so that different customers can come in because we have national security customers who want capabilities for national security uses – AWS can support up to classified levels. Then we have civilian customers who want completely unclassed capabilities. [...] So everyone wants something a little bit different. And then there’s some things where we can take open source SSA government information and just openly host it on our website that other people can use,” Marquez said.

The big question that I wanted to address for the audience was: do people expect SSA/STM  in its various forms for free, or are people willing to pay for it (because they are currently paying for it)? “The public service is a free service today and [we need to] define the line of what the basic service will be, that will be available to ‘all’, and how ‘all’ is defined also needs to be clarified. If it’s a US system, is it to make the capabilities available to US equities, whether it be US operators, and then, what’s available to international operators? Those are open questions that need to be defined as we go from building the system to actually starting to take it into operations,” said Frazier. He also made the point that, given limited budgets, “US taxpayers should support US interests and then other countries should be incentivized to invest to build out their own capabilities, knowing we need to figure out how to cooperate.”

Hesar confirmed commercial operators’ willingness to pay saying, “There’s a notion that satellite operators don’t want to pay anything for safety and they want everything for free. I think that’s changing and based on our own experience we have seen that operators [...], because the amount of congestion and the amount of traffic has increased so much, they realize that there are certain capabilities that they have to pay for in order to protect their assets and actually do their mission.”

The panel conversation ended by looking ahead to the future, considering how advances in AI are enhancing SSA/STM capability and how legislation in addition to the first-ever financial penalty for space junk are encouraging investment in technologies to clean up orbital debris. Watch the YouTube video for the full conversation.



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