Can GEOINT Lessons Prevent Collisions in Space?

GEOINT could provide a blueprint for the maturation of Space Situational Awareness, the field tasked with tracking space debris

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If geospatial intelligence broadly refers to space-based identification and tracking of terrestrial objects and activities, then Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is sort of its inverse: it’s the tracking of objects in space, with the goal of preventing collisions.

It’s a high-stakes problem, given the volume of space debris and the potential consequences of a collision. NASA estimates there are more than 25,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters in earth’s orbit, plus hundreds of millions more that are larger than a millimeter, and a collision involving a tiny particle could cause catastrophic damage to astronauts and spacecraft alike. And because the volume of satellites, rockets, and other space activity is increasing rapidly—fueled by billions of dollars in annual funding—the challenge is only growing more pressing.

That’s a lot of risk for an emerging space market that has the potential to be wildly lucrative.

“In our lifetime, we’re going to see more economic value created in space and from space than we have seen in all of human history,” says Kevin O’Connell, former director of the U.S. government’s Office of Space Commerce and the founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Space Economy Rising. O’Connell is scheduled to appear as a speaker at an SSA-focused USGIF workshop on February 6.

That makes SSA data exceptionally valuable. And it’s pushing the U.S. government to grapple with a few fundamental questions, such as what data it should keep classified; what data it should give away freely as a public service; what it should commercialize; and how best to interact with data collected by non-government sources.

And if that sounds familiar to GEOINT professionals, well, it should. The emerging field of SSA bears striking similarities to the state of GEOINT a generation ago, according to O’Connell. He believes GEOINT’s evolution—its rules and pathways for commercialization, and facilitation of public-private data-sharing partnerships—provides a template that, if followed, could enable the SSA ecosystem to mature quickly.

“Every time we commercialize a new phenomenology, we seem to newly learn lessons that we should already be benefiting from in areas like licensing, sharing data with allies, and how datasets are bought and sold as a service,” O’Connell says.

For example, O’Connell says SSA would benefit from GEOINT’s regulatory clarity regarding what data the government gathers and provides for free, versus what can be commercialized and licensed, and where it can rely on data gathered by industry partners. Space Policy Directive-3, issued in 2018, differentiates between a basic and advanced SSA provision service, with the basic service related to core data that the government will continue to provide for free, versus a premium tier that could be commercialized. The problem is that more than five years later, it remains unclear just what’s in the basic tier, and what’s available for the premium tier.

“We still haven’t shaken out what the free part of the data is,” O’Connell says. “Ideally, it should be as little as possible to satisfy foreign policy and safety obligations, and to encourage the development of new commercial services that will serve as the foundation of the space economy.”

Just as important is establishing a framework for incorporating SSA data and technology from industry partners, both related to national security and also to the development of civil SSA capabilities. In GEOINT’s early days, government leaders were skeptical that commercial companies could serve as core partners on national security missions, O’Connell says. Now, it’s another area where GEOINT’s maturation could provide a blueprint for success.

“When you have a fast moving problem, the private sector is one of the most important tools in your toolkit, and the problem we have with the space debris problem is that every day it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” O’Connell says. “Privately funded capabilities have really come into the [SSA] market nicely, and being able to leverage the massive private investments that already have been made in visualization, data management, cloud computing, and advanced analytics—there’s a lot there that can be brought to bear on this problem.”

Outer space presents plenty of challenges that demand innovation because they are utterly unlike those on earth. But there’s a much simpler solution to the problem of preventing space collisions and extracting value from the technology that makes it possible: look to GEOINT’s example.

If you’d like to attend the Space Situational Awareness Workshop on February 6, there’s still time to register. Visit https://usgif.org/ssa-workshop/ for the full agenda and to register by January 22.

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