International Space News
UPDATE, September 1, 2014, 4:45 pm EDT: This story has been updated with additional information since its original publication at 11:57 am EDT.
Russia's Foton-M4 spacecraft returned to Earth today (September 1), earlier than originally planned. It carried a number of experiments, including biological subjects among which were five geckos. Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, announced today that all five geckos died.
The cause and time of death will be determined by experts, although a Roscosmos official told the Itar-Tass news agency later in the day that they died at least a week before landing and the bodies were partially mummified. The official added that hypothermia was one possibility, but not the only one. Geckos are reptiles, which are cold-blooded.
The spacecraft also carried fruit flies (drosophila), an oft-used subject for biological experiments in space because they reproduce quickly, and Roscosmos said they "successfully developed and bred."
Foton-M4 (or Photon-M4) was launched on July 19, 2014 and was intended to remain in orbit for two months. It was placed into an incorrect orbit by its Soyuz-2-1a rocket, however. Intended to go into a 575 kilometer circular orbit, it was left in an elliptical 258 by 571 kilometer orbit. In addition, shortly after reaching orbit, the spacecraft stopped receiving commands, although it was transmitting. Two-way communications were later restored.
News of the malfunctions coupled with the nature of its passengers resulted in numerous headlines around the world about the fate of the geckos that were reportedly engaged in mating experiments, a fact that seemed to amuse many editors. In total, 22 experiments were aboard to study the physics of weightlessness, manufacturing processes of semiconductor materials, biomedical products, and well as biological and biotechnological research.
Last week, Roscosmos announced without explanation that the spacecraft would return today (September 1) instead of completing its full two-month mission. It landed in the Orenburg region at 13:18 Moscow time (5:10 am Eastern Daylight Time). Roscosmos announced the fate of the geckos soon thereafter.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, September 1-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on September 8.
During the Weeks
This coming Wednesday and Thursday (September 3-4), two committees that guide NASA's astrobiology and planetary science activities will meet at the same time, although offset by three hours since one is on the East Coast and the other is on the West Coast. The NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Science Subcommittee (NAC/PSS) provides tactical advice to NASA, while the National Research Council's (NRC's) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) is an NRC standing committee that cannot formally give "advice," but provides strategic guidance. NAC/PSS is meeting at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, while CAPS is meeting at the NRC's Beckman Center in Irvine, CA. Both committees usually get briefings from many of the same NASA officials to inform their deliberations, so they have arranged to have portions of the meetings held jointly via videoconference. (The joint sessions are shown on the CAPS agenda, but not on the NAC/PSS agenda. at least as of today).
NASA has made no official announcement, but its decision on the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract(s) could be revealed this week. Rumors that the agency would announce its choice(s) in late August proved unfounded. NASA itself has been vague all along, saying it would happen in "late August or early September."
Next week, on September 8, Congress returns. The House and Senate will have just over three weeks to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded when FY2015 begins on October 1. House and Senate Republican leaders are vowing that there will be no government shutdown this year. The House is scheduled to be in session September 8-11, September 16-19, and September 29 - October 2 before recessing for the elections. The Senate will be in session September 8-12 and September 15-19, with its schedule for the remainder of the month TBA.
No space-related hearings have been announced for September yet, but that could change as everyone gets back into the swing of things.
Meanwhile, here are the meetings we know about for September 1-12, 2014 as of Sunday morning, August 31. Enjoy the Labor Day weekend!
Wednesday-Thursday, September 3-4
Monday, September 8
Monday-Friday, September 8-12
Tuesday, September 9
Tuesday-Wednesday, September 9-10
Wednesday, September 10
Thursday, September 11
Friday, September 12
The European Commission (EC), the executive body of the European Union (EU), is demanding answers from Arianespace and the European Space Agency (ESA) on why two of its Galileo navigation satellites were placed into the wrong orbit last week. The satellites were launched by Arianespace on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Arianespace’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.
In a statement yesterday (August 25), the EC said it had “invited” ESA and Arianespace to its headquarters in Brussels to present initial results next week. The EC is participating in the Board of Inquiry and says preliminary results are expected “in the first half of September.” It wants ESA and Arianespace to provide “full details of the incident, together with a schedule and an action plan to rectify the problem.”
Also yesterday, Arianespace named an independent inquiry commission headed by Peter Dubock, former Inspector General of ESA, and said its initial conclusions will be submitted “as early as September 8, 2014.” Alexander Daniluk, Deputy Director General of Russia's TsNIImash, will serve as a liaison between the Arianespace inquiry and one being conducted in Russia.
The August 22 launch of the Soyuz ST-B rocket initially looked good, but later analysis showed that the two satellites were not placed into the correct orbit apparently due to a failure of the Fregat upper stage. Instead of ending up in a 29,900 kilometer circular orbit inclined at 55 degrees, they are in a 26,200 kilometer elliptical orbit (eccentricity 0.23) inclined at 49.8 degrees.
These are the first two “Full Operational Capability” (FOC) Galileo satellites, the initial launches towards an eventual 30-satellite constellation to provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). Four “In-Orbit Validation” (IOV) satellites were launched in 2011 and 2012 using the same type of rocket. Last week’s FOC launch was to herald the beginning of the fully operational phase.
Russian Soyuz rockets are launched from Kourou through a partnership among Russia’s space agency (Roscosmos), two Russian manufacturers (RKTs-Progress, which builds Soyuz, and NPO Lavochkin, which builds Fregat) and Arianespace. The Soyuz rocket has been in use since the beginning of the Space Age, though it has been upgraded many times over those decades. Russia’s enviable track record of launch successes began deteriorating in 2010 and a solution to those woes is proving elusive. Russian government and industry officials have been fired and a complete restructuring of the Russian space industry is underway, but failures continue. The venerable Proton rocket suffered yet another failure in May and has not yet returned to flight.
ESA and the EU shared the cost of the IOV phase of the Galileo program. The EU is fully funding the FOC operational phase, which is managed by the EC with ESA as its design and procurement agent. A 2011 EU document says that the IOV phase cost €2100 million, a substantial increase over the €1100 million estimate, and the EU had allocated €3405 million for the FOC phase. Today, one Euro (€) is $1.32. In today’s dollars, then, the IOV phase cost about $2.8 billion and the operational phase is projected to cost about $5 billion. That estimate could change, of course, because of this failure.
The EC hopes to have the full complement of 30 satellites in orbit before the end of this decade. The remaining satellites are to be launched on a combination of Soyuz and Ariane V rockets.
Galileo is designed to operate autonomously, but also is interoperable with the U.S. GPS and Russia’s GLONASS systems. (China is building its own global navigation satellite system, Beidou-2).
ESA said today that the two satellites are “safely under control” by the ESA/CNES team at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. CNES is the French space agency. The satellites were built by Germany’s OHB AG. ESA said that it is working with CNES and OHB to determine how to best utilize the satellites despite the incorrect orbit. The solar panels on one of the two satellites were fully deployed as of yesterday and those on the second satellite were expected to be deployed soon, meaning that they have power to function.
Dr. Lennard A. Fisk has been elected President of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council of Science (ICSU), the first American to hold that position. Created at the beginning of the Space Age, COSPAR promotes scientific research in space on an international level and provides a forum for discussion for space scientists around the world.
A solar physicist by training, Fisk is currently the Thomas M. Donohue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan. He joined the university faculty in 1993 after 6 years serving as NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications. A member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), he served as chairman of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board (SSB) from 2003-2008. (The National Research Council is the operating arm of the NAS, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine -- collectively called The National Academies.)
Dr. Lennard A. Fisk. Photo credit: University of Michigan website
COSPAR members are national scientific institutions, primarily Academies of Science. The NAS is the U.S. member of COSPAR and the SSB is the U.S. National Committee to COSPAR. NAS President Ralph Cicerone appointed Fisk to be the U.S. representative to COSPAR in 2012.
Historically, the President of COSPAR was a European and the United States and the Soviet Union were each allocated a Vice President slot. That tradition was discontinued after the end of the Cold War, but Fisk is the first American to be elected President. It is a 4-year term.
Fisk said via email that "I have always believed and believe even more today that space research and human space exploration should be pursued, where possible, through international cooperation." COSPAR can be an "important contributor" in promoting cooperation, he added, and as President he plans to "actively use all the tools that COSPAR has available" to ensure that the scientific exploration of space is a "truly international endeavor."
COSPAR was established by ICSU in 1958 as an outgrowth of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18-month effort from July 1957-December 1958 during which scientists from 66 nations cooperated together in studying the geophysics of planet Earth. The Soviet Union and the United States both announced that they would launch satellites in support of the IGY and, indeed, both did launch their first satellites during that time period. While he was chairman of the SSB, Fisk led an international commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the IGY with public lectures across the United States and in Paris, where COSPAR is headquartered. Many of the lectures from that series are published in Forging the Future of Space Science: The Next 50 Years, published by the National Academies Press.
COSPAR is perhaps best known for its biennial scientific assemblies that attract the world's top space scientists to share discoveries and plans for the future. The 40th COSPAR meeting recently concluded in Moscow. The venue became problematic in April when the White House directed agencies to limit their interactions with Russia because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. A NASA memo explaining the White House guidance said that NASA personnel could participate in multilateral meetings that involved Russians, but only if they were held outside Russia. Fisk is widely credited with convincing administration officials to exempt the COSPAR meeting in Moscow from that restriction. NASA said that 35 NASA employees were given permission to participate in the meeting.
UPDATE, August 25: Adds the two panel discussions today (Monday, August 25) at NASA re the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
August 24, 2014: Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 25-September 5, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on September 8.
During the Weeks
The schedule is light for the next two weeks, but the National Research Council (NRC) is hard at work, with meetings of one of its study committees this week and one of its standing committees the following week. The NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Planetary Science Subcommittee also will meet the following week.
The NRC study committee -- Survey of Surveys: Lessons Learned from the Decadal Survey Process -- will meet in public session on Monday and Tuesday (check the agenda for the most recent information on exactly when the open sessions will take place). NRC Decadal Surveys are the "bibles" used by NASA and highly valued by Congress in setting priorities for NASA's space and earth science programs. (Some of the Surveys also advise additional agencies like NSF and NOAA.) The most recent versions have encountered challenges in implementation, however, because of sharply changed budgetary realities between the time the study begins and when it ends, usually about two years later. The agencies tell each Decadal Survey committee at the outset what budget "wedge" they expect to have in the next 10 years (a decade) to begin new programs. The committees use that guidance in formulating recommendations on what programs to initiate to answer the top scientific questions they identify. The most recent Decadal Surveys have included "decision rules" on what to do if there is significantly less (or more, as unlikely as that is) money than they are told and NASA, at least, has had to utilize those decision rules a lot lately. This new NRC committee is looking at how to make the next round of Decadal Surveys more effective in guiding the agencies in these ever-changing times.
The NRC standing committee that is meeting the first week of September is the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS). Curiously, the NAC Planetary Science Subcommittee is meeting at exactly the same time (September 3-4). The meetings are on opposite coasts. Both advise NASA on its planetary science programs -- the NRC provides strategic advice while the NAC subcommittee provides tactical advice -- so they do look at the programs from different perspectives. They often get briefings from the same NASA people, though, so this must be an interesting scheduling exercise. Neither has posted their agendas yet.
Here is what we know about as of Sunday evening, August 24.
Monday, August 25
Monday-Wednesday, AUGUST 25-27
Wednesday-Thursday, SEPTEMBER 3-4
NASA declined today (August 18) to confirm rumors that it will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract by the end of the month, but anticipation is mounting. Whenever it happens, it will be a major step forward for the commercial crew program and achieving the oft-stated goal of restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil.
A NASA spokesman replied to an email query this morning by saying only that NASA still expects to make an announcement in the late-August, early-September time frame, as it has been saying for months.
NASA officials are not allowed to discuss the selection process before announcing the award(s), even to say who submitted bids. Expectations are that at least the three companies being funded under the current phase of the program – Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) – did so.
Those three are SpaceX with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, Boeing with the CST-100, and Sierra Nevada with Dream Chaser. Dragon V2 would be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing and Sierra Nevada have been planning to use Atlas V rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
One goal of the commercial crew program is to end America’s dependence on Russia for crew access to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of the spacecraft are American-built. The Falcon 9 rocket is American-built. The Atlas V rocket, however, while manufactured in Alabama, is powered by Russian RD-180 engines, so whether it is “American” is a matter of opinion. In addition, the future availability of RD-180s -- and therefore of the Atlas V -- is now in question. The Obama Administration announced in January that it plans to keep the ISS operating until at least 2024 so whatever commercial crew services the companies plan to offer would need to extend to that time period. Department of Defense (DOD) officials acknowledged at a Senate hearing last month that it is time to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 because of the changed U.S.-Russia geopolitical environment. The Air Force hopes the RD-180 engines currently on order will be delivered, enabling routine Atlas V launches for several years, but that would not last through 2024. Boeing and Sierra Nevada thus would need an alternative. One possibility is ULA's Delta IV, which uses Aerojet Rocketdyne’s American-built RS-68 engine. The Delta IV is more expensive than Atlas V, though, which could change the cost assumptions of those bids.
How many companies will win is largely dependent on how much money NASA has to pay them. Although they are termed “commercial” efforts, in fact they rely on the government to pay a share of the development costs and to be a market for the services. For the current CCiCAP phase, NASA funded “2 ½” companies – two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) at the full amount they requested and one (Sierra Nevada) at half the amount.
NASA insists that it wants to be able to select at least two companies to continue into this final CCtCAP phase so that in the future it will have two competitors providing services to keep prices down. Congress has never provided NASA with the full amount of funding requested for the program, however. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate repeatedly make clear that their priority is for NASA itself to build the big, new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), not the commercial crew program to take them only to LEO and the ISS.
Some influential members of Congress appear to be warming up to commercial crew, perhaps because of the success of the commercial cargo program and the desire to end reliance on Russia. Through the Bush Administration’s commercial cargo initiative, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation developed new rockets (Falcon 9 and Antares) and spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus) to take cargo to the ISS. NASA now purchases commercial cargo services from those two companies.
The Obama Administration decided to use the same approach, essentially a public-private partnership, to develop systems to take crews to and from the ISS after adopting the Bush Administration’s plan to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed. The last space shuttle flight – and the last time America could launch humans into space – was in 2011. NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia since then at a cost of about $450 million a year.
Based on the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed the House and the version agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress plans to provide more for commercial crew than in the past, even if not the full request of $848 million. The House approved $785 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to $805 million. Whether either amount is enough for NASA to make more than one CCtCAP award is a question that will be answered only when the announcement is made.
Not everyone in Congress has bought into commercial crew, however. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is a determined advocate of SLS, which is being built in his state of Alabama, and a commercial crew skeptic. The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its CJS subcommittee, he included language in the committee-approved version of NASA’s FY2015 appropriations bill that would require CCtCAP winners to abide by accounting requirements associated with cost-plus rather than fixed-price contracts. Opponents call it a “poison pill” because complying could cost a small company like SpaceX a lot of money because it does not have a cadre of personnel in place to handle the paperwork, unlike big companies like Boeing. Boeing and SpaceX are considered the two top contenders based on the CCiCAP awards.
That appropriations bill has not passed the Senate, but was briefly debated on the Senate floor in June. At the time, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the Shelby provision because the requirements are “unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition” and could increase cost and delay schedule.
Selecting the winner(s) of the CCtCAP awards before that appropriations bill or a Continuing Resolution that might include similar language passes Congress could be one motivation for NASA making its decision sooner rather than later.
The CCtCAP award(s) will bring the United States one step closer to once again launching people into space. When the Obama Administration initially proposed the commercial crew program in the FY2011 budget request, it anticipated systems would be ready by 2015, resulting in a four-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the availability of a replacement. That date has slipped to 2017, however, because it did not get the requisite funding. Some of the companies have indicated they could be ready sooner if more money was available, but NASA is planning on 2017. Until then, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way for ISS crew members to travel back and forth.
UPDATE: We've added the Ancient Earth, Ancient Aliens event on August 20, which we just found out about..
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 18-29, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on September 8.
During the Weeks
At last, things have quieted down for these last two weeks of August. Perhaps what is most interesting is what's NOT on the calendar -- two U.S. spacewalks from the ISS that were supposed to take place in addition to the Russian spacewalk tomorrow. NASA is still recovering from the alarming failure last summer when water filled Luca Parmitano's spacesuit helmet while he was out on a spacewalk. NASA determined that a blocked filter caused the problem and replaced the filters on the spacesuits and added other safety features, but still has not approved routine U.S. spacewalks. Only contingency spacewalks required to address specific issues are allowed. Two were scheduled for August 21 and August 29, but NASA postponed them because of concerns about the spacesuit batteries. The next SpaceX cargo resupply flight on September 19 will deliver replacements and the spacewalks will be rescheduled. NASA officials reportedly met last week to review whether to resume routine spacewalks, but the agency has not issued any press statements to that effect yet.
The Russians have their own spacesuits, Orlan, and are not affected by the concerns about the U.S. suits. Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov will perform a 6.5 hour spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA) -- to retrieve two experiments on the exterior of the ISS and install two new ones, and deploy a nanosatellite. NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 am ET.
That and other events during the next two weeks that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday, August 18
Tuesday, August 19
Wednesday, August 20
Monday-Wednesday, August 25-27
State Department official Frank Rose pressed the case yesterday that the Chinese conducted another antisatellite (ASAT) test on July 23. This is only the second time the U.S. Government has accused China of conducting an ASAT test -- other analysts insist there have been others -- and Rose's comments reemphasized a statement released by the State Department on July 25 perhaps to raise the visibility of the U.S. government's concern.
The July 25 statement from the State Department asserted that China conducted a non-destructive ASAT test on July 23 and called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions." China announced it was a missile intercept test.
Rose said yesterday at U.S. Strategic Command's Deterrence Symposium that "Despite China's claims that this was not an ASAT test; let me assure you the United States has high confidence in its assessment, that the event was indeed an ASAT test." Russia also has ASAT weapons, he continued, citing congressional testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Rose, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said ASAT systems are "both destabilizing and threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment."
Rose's remarks then returned to the familiar themes that space is congested and contested and in need of voluntary, non-legally binding Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) such as those to which China and Russia agreed last year through the United Nations (U.N.) Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). He also cited the "important multilateral initiative" being pursued through development of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities as well as efforts within the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
The key point was his public, official insistence that China conducted another ASAT test. There is no disagreement that China conducted an ASAT test in 2007, destroying one of its own satellites and earning international condemnation because of the resulting cloud of orbital debris that will imperil satellites in low Earth orbit indefinitely. China conducted "missile intercept" tests in 2010 and 2013 that some Western analysts also assert were ASAT tests, but the U.S. Government has not publicly placed them in that category. This is only the second time that the U.S. Government has accused China of an ASAT test. Rose allowed that this was a "non-destructive" test even though the rest of his comments stressed the grave consequences of debris-generating ASAT systems.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today (August 12) that Lockheed Martin's Tory Bruno is replacing Michael Gass as its President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), effective immediately. Gass has been President and CEO since ULA was created in 2006. ULA said the two men would work "collaboratively to ensure a smooth transition."
ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Delta and Atlas rockets. Gass has an extensive career in the launch vehicle business, but that business is changing with the entrance of SpaceX's Falcon 9 into the marketplace and deteriorating geopolitical relationships between the United States and Russia that pose challenges for ULA's acquisition of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines that power the Atlas V. The announcement said that he is retiring.
Bruno comes to his new job from serving as vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems. Both men won praise from Lockheed Martin and Boeing executives in today's press release. Lockheed Martin's Rick Ambrose pointed out that "Mike's track record speaks for itself: 86 successful launches in a row." As for Bruno, Ambrose called him "an ideal leader to take the reins of ULA" who will "apply his proven track record of driving customer focus, innovation and affordability to shape ULA's future." Boeing's Craig Cooning expressed gratitude for Gass's leadership and said Bruno is "well-qualified to ensure ULA keeps pace with changing customer needs and launch industry dynamics."
ULA recently initiated a marketing campaign focusing on ULA's reliability and experience in launching satellites, especially for national security purposes. It is getting ready to launch a commercial satellite, Worldview-3, tomorrow and conducted two successful launches -- AFSPC-4 and a GPS navigation satellite -- in one week in late July-early August.
But SpaceX is nipping at its heels, accusing the Air Force of illegally awarding a sole-source contract to ULA last year. The case is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Pressure is building to allow "new entrants" like SpaceX to compete for government launches to reduce launch costs.
Editor's note: The ULA press release states that Bruno was most recently "vice president and general manager" of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems. However, his LinkedIn profile states that he is President of that part of the company.
The Space Data Association (SDA) has reached a data sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to enhance space situational awareness. SDA's members include several of the world's major commercial satellite operators who share certain data with each other to avoid in-orbit collisions. USSTRATCOM is the first non-satellite operator to sign an agreement with the group.
SDA was founded by three of the largest commercial communications satellite operators -- Intelsat, Inmarsat and SES -- after the 2009 collision between an operating Iridium communications satellite (Iridium 33) and a defunct Russian military communications satellite (Cosmos 2251). The collision added to the population of space debris in low Earth orbit, which had increased significantly two years earlier following a Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test that created about 3,000 pieces of debris.
The Chinese ASAT test and the Iridium-Cosmos collision raised the profile of the problems posed by space debris and the need for countries and companies to work together to ensure that Earth orbit will remain usable in the future. Space Situational Awareness (SSA) refers to the goal of knowing where everything is in Earth orbit and where it's going. (Some definitions add the goal of knowing what each satellite is doing). It is one element of President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy.
SDA created a mechanism for its members to share data on the locations of their satellites and any plans to reposition them that avoids revealing sensitive information yet contributes to SSA and the broader goal of "space sustainability." For several years it has been seeking agreement with the Department of Defense to access data from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC), which tracks objects in Earth orbit for the U.S. government, predicts when they will decay from orbit, and conducts "conjunction analyses" to determine if a collision is likely. JSPoC is part of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space) under USSTRATCOM. It is currently tracking more than 17,000 objects in Earth orbit of which approximately 4,000 are functioning payloads or satellites, 2,000 are rocket bodies, and 11,000 are debris/inactive satellites according to its space-track.org website.
In addition to concern about physical collisions between space objects, there is growing concern about electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radiofrequency interference (RFI), particularly intentional jamming of satellite frequencies by countries that object to certain programming or otherwise choose to interfere with the transmissions.
SDA called the agreement a "critical milestone" that allows the two organizations to formally collaborate on SSA issues including EMI and RFI. The agreement creates "a framework to exchange data," SDA President Ron Busch said in an August 8 press release, and is an acknowledgment by USSTRATCOM that "collaboration can enhance" SSA.
The Secure World Foundation (SWF) is a champion of SSA and space sustainability. Brian Weeden, SWF's technical advisor and a former Air Force officer who worked at JSPoC, said via email that "This agreement could be a major step forward, but as always the devil is in the details and right now we don't have many details."
SDA announced the agreement in a press release; USSTRATCOM does not appear to have made a public announcement.