Borowitz Testifies to Need for Civil-Sector Space Monitoring
Mariel Borowitz, associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, recently testified before a congressional subcommittee to the benefits of establishing a civil agency to manage how the U.S. tracks objects orbiting Earth.
“It was an honor to have the opportunity to speak to Congress on this issue. Satellites are critical to the economy and security of people all over the world and ensuring that we keep the space environment safe and sustainable is incredibly important,” Borowitz said after the hearing.
Borowitz appeared before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics on May 12 for a hearing on “Space Situational Awareness: Guiding the Transition to a Civil Capability.” In her opening remarks, Borowitz discussed the need for a safe and secure way to conduct Space Situational Awareness, or SSA, to track objects in space, predict their future location, and anticipate potential collisions. The Defense Department oversees SSA and monitors more than 44,000 space objects.
“Right now, the U.S. Department of Defense operates the most advanced SSA system in the world. They collect data from a wide array of sensors and fuse that data to create a catalog of space objects. They also conduct analysis that allows them to predict the future location of these objects and provide advanced warning of potential collisions (referred to as conjunctions). The basic version of the space catalog as well as the conjunction warnings are made available free of charge to all satellite operators around the world,” she said.
As more commercial and non-U.S. entities collect and monitor additional data on space objects, Congress is evaluating the need for a civil agency to oversee these services so the DoD can focus on its primary national security mission. This move would also build better partnerships between the government and private sector satellite owner/operators and streamline the otherwise complex process.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce is under consideration for handling SSA activities, according to a 2018 space policy directive signed by then-President Donald Trump. The office piloted an open architecture data repository in 2021 capable of data sharing among government and commercial space operators and is seeking more money to maintain the program.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, said the federal government needs to move quickly to develop a framework for who handles space traffic management to further mitigate the creation of orbital debris.
“While the U.S. has led the world in actionable SSA services and information, other nations are quickly getting into the game and developing advanced approaches to SSA and space traffic coordination. We can’t afford to lose our edge,” he said.
Borowitz joined panelists Matthew Hejduk, senior project leader of the Aerospace Corporation; Moriba Jah, associate professor in the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department at the University of Texas at Austin; Andrew D’Uva, senior policy advisor for the Space Data Association; and Kevin M. O’Connell, founder of Space Economy Rising, LLC.
Borowitz conducts research on international space policy issues and teaches courses on Space Policy and Space Security. Georgia Tech also offers graduate certificate programs on Astrobiology, Space Entrepreneurship, and International Security and Aerospace Systems, as well as a one-year master’s in International Affairs, Science, and Technology.
Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Florida, EE 1971, asked about specific research priorities the federal government should invest in to advance SSA capabilities.
Borowitz said technical research can be done to improve the types of useful data that is collected, as well as examine algorithms to better integrate data to predict collisions.
“There’s also work we can do on the social science side that will be important to look at how we organize this system both within the United States and how we engage in international cooperation in this area. It really is an inherently international issue and it’s something we want to be on the same page with other nations about,” she added.
Borowitz noted that for any civil agency to be successful in these endeavors, it must have a clear definition of its mission and the types of data collecting and monitoring services it offers; it must evaluate the quality of product that it can provide free of charge; it must define how it partners with the international community; and it must work efficiently and effectively in a timely manner with the academic and commercial sector to provide accurate SSA data.
She compared the agency’s responsibilities to how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides weather forecasts and analysis to public and private sectors.
“The United States has a thriving commercial weather sector that’s capable of producing a wide variety of products and services. And yet, the government provides forecasts, severe weather watches and warnings for free. This is because the government has a responsibility to ensure all people have access to this critical safety information. And the same is true for SSA,” Borowitz said.
“Providing these high-quality warnings that help satellite operators avoid collisions and ensure the long-term sustainability of space is really in the U.S. national interest.”
A recording of the hearing and Borowitz’s written testimony can be found on the U.S. House of Representatives website.