SPACE SYMPOSIUM NEWS: DoD Transitioning Space Capabilities to Commerce Department

By Josh Luckenbaugh

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — The Defense Department is in the process of transferring commercial and civil space situational awareness capabilities to the Commerce Department. While there is a lot of work ahead, the transition is going well so far, officials said April 20.

“The operating domain has significantly evolved,” with commercial companies increasingly launching systems into space,” said Travis Langster, the principal director of space and missile defense policy at the Defense Department.

“The DoD is a military organization, and that means there are inherently constraints, be it security, procedural constraints, and no-fail type missions,” Langster said during a panel discussion at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium. “Spaceflight safety for commercial civil doesn't inherently require a military system,” hence the decision to transition several of those responsibilities to Commerce.

The transition is not simple or straightforward, but the two departments are “making great progress,” said the director of the Office of Space Commerce in the Commerce Department Dr. Richard DalBello.

“There are a lot of complicated issues to consider … on data, roles and responsibilities, the fact that DoD actually has a global presence and sharing information, and what part of that task are we going to take over,” DalBello said. The two departments signed a memorandum of agreement in September and have set up working groups to tackle “the hard issues,” he said.

“What we're doing is difficult, and we're doing it in an environment that's dramatically changing — both the space environment is getting more complicated, but also we're seeing multiple and competing SSA systems growing around the world,” he said. “And we're trying to contend with all that, but the bottom line is the partnership is strong.”

The transition is “fairly technical” right now, Langster said, “but I think we're on a very good path forward. And while it's going to take time, there's lots of robust capabilities out in the commercial marketplace. So, we at DoD look forward to a robust but also successful transition.”

Phase one of the Commerce Department’s space situational awareness system is scheduled to be implemented in the third quarter of fiscal year 2024, DalBello said, adding that initially Commerce will be “relying heavily on the DoD core data that comes from the Space Surveillance Network that they run,” and then “leveraging new data sources.”

“Part of the magic of this system will be [that] we need to have transparency between us,” he said. “It's our goal to stand up a completely unclassified system and to ensure that there's robust data sharing” with commercial operators. “We have to move to a world where there's more transparency in what commercial operators are doing — where they are, they need to share the location information, they need to share the maneuver information, and we should be able to reshare that information.”

In the coming months, the Commerce Department will be holding a series of dialogues with commercial industry “to better understand what their goals are for the system, and one of the things we will be talking about is this concept of a broader sharing of information,” DalBello said.

As for the Defense Department, Langster said the department will look to acquire technology that is not necessarily different from that of the Commerce Department, but will have different applications and use cases to achieve the department’s concept of space domain awareness.

Space domain awareness “comes down to not only SSA, but understanding and characterizing, predicting and attributing what's happening in the domain, being able to get as close as we can to understanding intent and having the capabilities to respond to activities in space that threaten our national security interests,” he said.

The Defense Department still has military missions for “space situational awareness and the space safety of our systems,” he said. “So, we'll continue to do that, and there's a strong interest and demand signal within the department" to leverage and integrate commercial systems, "not only in SSA, but in other areas.”


Topics: Space