US Air Force Releasing More Data on Orbits of Military Satellites

Ross, Raymond and Whiting
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (center) meets with U.S. Air Force Gen. Jay Raymond (left) and Maj. Gen Stephen Whiting at Vandenberg Air Force Base Nov. 30 to discuss transition for space traffic management responsibilities. (Image credit: Maj. Cody Chiles/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — As the Commerce Department works on plans to take over civilian space traffic management responsibilities, the U.S. Air Force is making more data available on the positions of military satellites.

Satellite observers recently noticed that Space Track, the online service operated by U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to provide data on the orbits of satellites and other objects, was now including information on some U.S. military satellites that were previously excluded from the service. Such satellites include the AEHF, MUOS and WGS military communications satellites in geostationary orbit.

While some observers wondered if this information was released in error, the service's Twitter account said this was a deliberate action as part of efforts to provide more space situational awareness (SSA) data. "We are releasing additional data about some space objects not previously available," it stated Dec. 7. "USSTRATCOM has a new policy to enhance SSA data sharing, transparency and spaceflight safety." [Military Space: The Latest Satellites and Missions]

U.S. Air Force Maj. Cody Chiles, Joint Force Space Component Command spokesman, referred to an Oct. 5 statement by U.S. Strategic Command about its plans to expand SSA data on Space Track, where registered users would "begin to receive additional data about some space objects that was not previously available."

"USSTRATCOM is always evaluating opportunities to share more information in order to support spaceflight planning, coordination, and on-orbit deconfliction to enhance the safety, stability and sustainability of operations in the space environment," Strategic Command stated then.

Chiles told SpaceNews that, on Dec. 5, the Joint Force Space Component Command released data on 67 objects previously not included on Space Track, but didn't identify the specific objects. "We are committed to enhancing spaceflight safety through SSA data sharing, and we are always evaluating and looking for opportunities to share more information in order to enhance all nations' ability to safely operate in space," he said.

Both Chiles and the earlier Strategic Command statement cited national policy as one reason for releasing the additional information. "We are committed to information sharing and cooperation in the space domain as described in Space Policy Directive 3 and through our Space Partnership and Coordination Initiative," Chiles said.

Space Policy Directive 3, signed by President Trump in June, directs the Commerce Department to take over the responsibility for providing basic SSA data and space traffic management (STM) services for civil and commercial users, a responsibility currently handled by the U.S. Air Force.

Planning for that transition is still in progress. In late November, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross met with Air Force officials at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to discuss how to establish a "civil agency interface" to take over that responsibility from the Air Force.

"The Commerce Department is excited to bring that mission into the 21st century," Ross said in a Dec. 7 speech at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce space industry event here. "We've forged a strong alliance with DOD, with the Air Force and especially with the U.S. Strategic Command."

Ross said that, in his meetings at Vandenberg, "we saw many ways we can leverage commercial technologies and applications to improve STM and SSA services in the future," including new approaches to analytics and visualization to improve the accuracy of data and of conjunction warnings that alert satellite operators of potential collisions.

Ross emphasized one aspect of SPD-3, which calls for the creation of an "open architecture data repository" that could potentially combine SSA data collected by the Air Force with data from other sources, including a number of companies that track objects with optical telescopes or radars. In such a system, Ross said, "companies can showcase new capabilities, either on their own or with partners."

"We will build on a continued flow of information from DOD and add novel capabilities for new services," he said.

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

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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.