The following comes from a paper I wrote for the Florida Institute of Technology’s National Security Space course. I’ve added much more to it for this analysis, but I figured the information within would be useful for those who are trying to get the lay of the land, as far as the increasing spacecraft deployments through the past ten years. I did provide a potential technical solution (which is not in this piece). To be clear, the professionalism, talent, training, and dedication of the people conducting the SDA mission is not the question.
The upshot, though, is that whatever plans the United States government has for implementing a structure both in governance and assets are far behind commercial space operators’ plans. There is a mismatch in the operational tempo and investment of the current and future government SSA custodians and those deploying satellites in the commercial sector.
While space is a big domain, humans shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking it’s so big that we can do to it as we’ve done to our oceans (especially when focused on the orbits from GEO through LEO). At the same time, we shouldn’t base humanity’s future in space on fear of cascading failures and orbital debris/spacecraft congestion. Those, and others, are merely the latest hurdles facing humans as they strive to make a buck while making Earth a nicer place to live for the rest of us.
When it comes to space situational awareness (SSA) or space domain awareness (SDA), two main arguments arise for why they are a necessary capability for the U.S. to maintain. The seemingly most dominant one talks about the threat of orbital space debris and the odds of satellites colliding with each other, which only creates more debris. The next threat, however, is the space adversary, either China or Russia, conducting space maneuvers, anti-satellite operations, or some other surprise that potentially works against U.S. military space assets.
However, there is a third threat to the space environment and security. It’s the addition of thousands of commercial spacecraft in Earth’s orbit during the last decade (which contributes to the first threat) and the plans to add tens of thousands more with no agreed-upon space norms to guide behaviors and operations. While the U.S. military’s SDA operators use legacy software and ground sites to provide primary tracking data to current operators, will they be able to track tens of thousands of spacecraft effectively?
Space Domain Awareness: Parochial Solutions for a Global Challenge
“The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies.”
That quote, attributed to French general Napoleon Bonaparte, is a fitting description of the half-century of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) attempts to control the everyday chaos that is the spacecraft, debris, and detritus orbiting the Earth. Those attempts, now aggregated under the umbrella concept of “space domain awareness” (SDA), may not be enough. That observation is based on the changes throughout the global space industry, from China’s aggressive space expansion programs to the growing dominance of commercial space industry missions.
SDA covers what the United States Space Force (USSF) considers the space domain. Within that domain, SDA requires “identification, characterization, and understanding of any factor” associated with it. Considering that space generally starts from the Kármán line (100 km above the Earth’s surface) and beyond and that “any factor” could be defined as nearly anything within that volume, then the USSF is not ready to control the chaos. The USSF is a small service with the largest Area of Responsibility in U.S. history. Despite that responsibility, the systems and satellites it uses for its mission are outdated and inadequate for covering the entire space domain. The optical and radar sites it uses are also limited in number, forcing the USSF to augment its space surveillance networks with data-sharing agreements.
Adding complexity to the USSF’s problem is that it has a parochial mission that aids in defense of the United States and its power projection. USSF system and process decisions will always be focused on that mission. But the factors for control are beyond and above U.S. borders, going beyond global. Spacecraft operators, for example, have increased from the simple black/white nature of U.S./USSR spacecraft deployments. In addition, new space industry stakeholders need services and data that exceed the USSF’s current mission-focused data collections.
Commercial Chaos: Uncontrolled Growth
Not that long ago, space was prohibitively expensive. It was so expensive that, aside from communications and, later, some remote sensing satellites, governments and militaries generally were the only entities who could afford, launch, and operate satellites. The high expense served as a way to keep the space lanes clear, as only “serious” commercial players would be deploying spacecraft (which were also expensive). Couple the high expense with long wait times (years to manufacture a satellite), and there was little incentive to include space as part of a business plan–especially if that business plan could be done through less-expensive terrestrial means.
However, those impediments discouraging businesspeople from including space have diminished. Those changes can be seen in the rapid expansion of the numbers of satellites orbiting the Earth today, and the plans of satellite operators for many more of them–soon.
By 2021’s end, at least 102 nations operated spacecraft orbiting the Earth. Compared with average annual spacecraft deployments of 118 during the fifty decades prior, the average during the last decade increased by 400%. Most spacecraft operators responsible for those deployment increases were commercial businesses, spectacularly dwarfing Chinese, Russian, and U.S. military spacecraft deployments.
Commercial operators will need more because of the state of spacecraft in Earth’s orbit in 2022:
- Nearly 5,000 spacecraft orbit the Earth
- Slightly over 4,000 are in LEO
- LEO satellites tend to be small
- The majority of spacecraft are commercially-focused
- More nations are operating spacecraft
- More spacecraft deployed per launch in 2021 than any year prior
- Spacecraft deployments in 2022 will probably exceed 2021’s record
- Total spacecraft deployments in the last ten years (2013-2022) =5,996
- Total spacecraft deployments in 56 years prior (1957-2012) =6,613
- Average annual spacecraft deployments in the last decade (2013-2022) =600
- Average annual spacecraft deployments in 56 years prior (1957-2012) =118
- 2022’s orbital space launches will also likely exceed 2021’s launch totals
- If commercial satellite operators’ plans come to fruition
- ~100,000 satellites will orbit in LEO
- They will deploy within ten years
The data above comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists Satellite database and the DoD’s online Space-Track service.
During 2013, nations and companies worldwide deployed ~210 spacecraft. By the end of 2021, the overall total of spacecraft deployed into orbit had increased to ~1,730, a nearly 800% increase over 2013’s deployments. About 90% of 2021’s deployed spacecraft had a commercial mission. As of July 15, 2022, the USSF was tracking spacecraft in the Earth’s orbit from 102 nations.
Of the estimated 4,582 operational spacecraft orbiting the Earth by 2021’s end, 4,078 were in LEO versus 578 in GEO. Those LEO spacecraft tend to be small, with a little over 1,500 of 2021’s deployed spacecraft having a mass of 1,000 kilograms (kg) or less.
In 2013, commercial spacecraft had an 18% share of the world’s deployments, while civil government took the largest share with 56%. Spacecraft with military missions took the remaining 26%. Deployed commercial spacecraft missions grew from 37 in 2013 to ~1,560 in 2021. Only 6% were for civil government missions such as the James Webb Telescope or Galileo navigation satellites in 2021. From the beginning of 2022 through June 15 of that year, 1,122 spacecraft have been deployed, demonstrating an operational deployment tempo that will eclipse 2021’s record number of deployments.
Those numbers are only the beginning of what potentially may be massive increases in spacecraft deployment activities within the next five years. Based on the plans of some commercial low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband providers alone, the number of satellites they say they will deploy is around 93,300. Just the satellites from Project Kuiper (~3,300), OneWeb (48,000), and Starlink (~42,000) make up that number. It doesn’t include satellites from the LEO broadband network plans of China, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the European Union. They also do not include the potential growth of commercial satellites with payloads other than broadband communications.
While those companies have requested the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for permission to deploy those large satellite numbers, they ultimately may not, as has happened in the past with space companies like Teledesic. However, if just one company, such as SpaceX or OneWeb, manages to deploy the number of spacecraft requested, fulfillment of that request results in a 900% increase from the current level of spacecraft in the Earth’s orbit at the end of 2021 (~4,800). Based on planned upgrades for the USSF’s SDA systems, that spacecraft increase will outstrip those system capabilities.
Weaning Away from Military Needs
The challenge is that the USSF’s SDA services are limited and not focused on the needs of commercial operators (correctly). Additionally, the nature of the space domain it monitors has undergone overwhelming changes during the last ten years–changes which the United States Air Force certainly didn’t foresee and the USSF seems ill-equipped to address. Increasing international and commercial stakeholders deploying their various spacecraft form factors make the very act of acquiring and identifying spacecraft challenging. That and waiting for spacecraft to come into a ground-site’s view every 90 minutes is not enough—but it’s business as usual. And everything covered so far only focuses on the increasing spacecraft deployed to orbit, not debris, micrometeoroids, and specks of paint.
This is not the fault of the USSF. The USAF took on the job of providing its services to the commercial sector, because at the time, who else could provide that data? While the USAF didn’t intend it, its SSA/SDA services made it a monopoly provider.
The U.S. government has acknowledged that the information the USSF provides is beyond its military mandate. It has ordered the Office of Space Commerce to begin the process of taking over some of the USSF’s responsibilities. The service’s challenges demonstrate some of the issues of providing a global service while using a parochial lens. And the USSF isn’t the only one experiencing mission creep. The FCC, for example, has been incorrectly used as more than an RF regulator and is apparently ready to take on more tasks that have nothing to do with that regulation (again). The FAA also has its hand in the space industry regulation cookie jar.
This isn’t to say that regulation is not required. But, each one of those organizations is addressing a global problem through their national priorities while adding friction for “certification/permission” processes commercial operators need to jump through. I see other governments attempting similar gymnastics with existing agencies, and those agencies are likely to look at the SDA challenge through their priorities. This isn’t surprising, as their priorities are driven by taxpayer-raised budgets.
Maybe there’s a commercial opportunity. True, there are SSA/SDA companies operating today, but–at least at a glance–they seem to be using similar technologies and techniques established by the U.S. military. That was okay when only a few hundred satellites were deployed annually. But even those businesses will likely be overwhelmed (with their current setups) if hundreds of thousands of satellites become the norm in space. Hopefully their business plans involve implementing more than what the USSF appears to be planning.
Still, relying on one nation’s military resources and mission as a solution to a growing problem encompassing the world will result in more chaos, including collisions. It will be a security nightmare for every nation working in space.