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Changed Space Environment Creates Multitude of Challenges, Say Panelists

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 21-Feb-2013
Updated: 21-Feb-2013 12:28 PM

Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, the national security space community has described today’s space environment as “congested, contested, and competitive.” Yet as panelists at an event Wednesday emphasized, the threats to U.S. space investments not only have security implications, but may impact the bottom line of companies and even the ability to continue relying on critical space-enabled services.

Organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Space Foundation, the event brought together experts from the national space security, academic, commercial and government sectors to discuss some of these threats. The event was held under the Chatham House rule, where everything is said on a non-attribution basis.

Panelists explained that the changed space environment, which now involves more than 60 space actors, challenges the rules, practices and expectations that were established more than 50 years ago when space was the sole domain of the Soviet Union and the United States. This situation forces changes in how governments and commercial actors interact and how they protect the systems on which they are becoming increasingly reliant.

Some of the key threats identified by the panel include the following:

  • Growing space dependence – Critical services such as weather monitoring, telecommunications, and positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) – such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) -- would not be possible without space assets.  According to one of the panelists, there is a prevailing trend for the design of essential utilities that are heavily dependent on space assets, such as location-based utilities using GPS.  Heavy reliance on space-based assets is problematic to the extent that they often have no terrestrial backups, which would be costly, have no other market, and may become outdated before they are used.
  • Inadequate treaty-regime – The existing treaty regime, shaped by the interactions between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s, may no longer be effective to guide space activities. According to a panelist, the need to incorporate and involve commercial companies and the need for an effective dispute resolution system are two issues that need to be addressed.  The panelist added that “a lot of thought and perhaps innovations,” will be needed to “tweak the legal regime to accommodate [new] trends.”
  • Combined Space Operations – One panelist said that when it comes to addressing challenges faced by military space activities, proposed solutions that cost a lot of money are “dead on arrival.” The community is instead shifting towards increased international cooperation. The Department of Defense is actively working to cooperate with its closest allies in areas such as space situational awareness (SSA) and exploring how to move towards combined space operations. While this is challenging, the panelist expressed confidence that steps were being taken in the right direction, saying “I’m kind of excited.”
  • Long-term Sustainability – As one of the agencies directed to promote the stability and long-term sustainability of space by the 2010 National Space Policy, the Department of State engages in a variety of bilateral and multilateral activities.  A panelist explained that an ongoing push to raise the significance of this issue in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) led to a study, likely to conclude this year, that would lead to “voluntary, non-binding, best practices guidelines” to promote long-term sustainability.
  • Industrial base issues – Threats to the sustainability of the satellite manufacturing industrial base were cited as a concern for both the commercial and military space communities. Nevertheless, export control reform has been taken as a positive step. One of the panelists thanked Congress for taking a step that was “a significant assist to U.S. manufacturing.”
  • In-space operations – Improved SSA has been a topic of interest for everyone from U.S. government civil and military officials negotiating data sharing agreements to commercial companies self organizing in ventures such as the Space Data Association. Beyond the need to avoid in-orbit collisions, reducing radio frequency and electromagnetic interference is also a concern.  

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