Commerce Department Ready to Add Space Traffic Management to Growing Space Role

Wilbur Ross
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. (Image credit: Commerce Department)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross says his department is gearing up to add space traffic management to its growing portfolio of commercial space responsibilities.

Speaking at the 34th Space Symposium here April 17, Ross said the Commerce Department was taking several steps to implement a draft space traffic management (STM) policy, announced by Vice President Mike Pence a day earlier, that would assign the department the responsibility for providing some space situational awareness services.

"The department stands ready to work with other executive branch agencies, and the private sector, to develop an STM strategy that creates benchmark standards for the entire world," he said. [7 Wild Ways to Clean Up Space Junk]

Those plans will build upon earlier studies that examined shifting the responsibility from the Defense Department for providing space traffic management services, such as collision warnings, for operators of civil and commercial satellites. That will include, he said, leveraging the expertise of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Commerce Department, in developing standards in collaboration with industry.

The department is also planning an international space regulatory conference that will take place in the United States by next January to bring together STM experts from around the world. "As we embark on new plans for space traffic management and space situational awareness, it will be important for government to hear from key global space industry leaders," Ross said.

The transition outlined in the policy will take time to implement. "As Commerce takes on new responsibilities from DOD and other agencies, we will make sure that there is a seamless transition," Ross said in his speech. "We recognize the importance of having the right people, the right partnerships, and the right processes in place before any big changes are finalized."

In an interview April 16, Ross said that he has met with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on a transition of STM responsibilities. He emphasized the "baby steps" nature of that planned transition, but didn't estimate how long it would take to complete.

"What we worked out in concept is a transitional period," he said, with the Defense Department continuing to collect data and the Commerce Department ramping up its analysis capabilities. Commerce would also be able to augment that with data from commercial and international sources. "This is not going to be an abrupt switch-throwing, where one day it's DoD and the next day it's Commerce."

This STM responsibility is part of a consolidation of commercial space regulatory responsibilities, outside of launch and communications, in the Commerce Department's Office of Space Commerce. That office, previously within NOAA, will be elevated to directly under the Secretary of Commerce. A new director for the office will be named soon, Ross said.

In his speech, Ross touched upon another topic, commercial remote-sensing regulatory reform. "We apply the same level of interagency scrutiny to a high school cubesat as we do to a billion-dollar asset designed for our intelligence community," he said. "This is silly, and it will stop."

He cited in particular the March 30 SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, where a live broadcast from cameras on board the rocket was cut off shortly before reaching orbit  because of what the company said at the time were NOAA restrictions. Ross said that SpaceX and other launch companies weren't aware they needed commercial remote-sensing licenses for such broadcasts.

"This is a perfect example of how commercial activity in space is outpacing government regulations. No more," Ross said, directing the NOAA office that regulates commercial remote sensing to "implement reforms that will meet private sector needs without endangering national security."

Ross met April 16 with executives from companies that are either in the commercial remote-sensing business or require NOAA licenses. The hour-long "listening session" allowed companies to discuss their concerns, which included a lack of transparency in the licensing review process and long timelines.

Ross said in the interview that as Commerce takes on more regulatory activities, he doesn't want the agency to forget its role to promote industry as well. "While the label is regulator, we would like the mindset to be that of a sensible facilitator," he said.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.