The View From Here

The View From Here

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

It seems to me that the term "space situational awareness" is rather like the term "pornography." We all agree it's a serious problem, but we can't seem to agree on a definition for it. Yet, by golly, we're all going to know it when we see it!

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, as I see it space situational awareness (SSA) simply means "an awareness, understanding, and ability to characterize what is going on in space." This knowledge-based characterization should, in turn, enable decision making and informed actions.

Clearly, we're not there yet. And, I'd submit that even the above, very broad, definition falls short because it inherently seems to deal with the Earth-orbit environment. That's not enough.

My theory is that total SSA has four distinct dimensions.

First, of course, is the Earth-orbit environment. It is right there in our face, and we know it is a problem. We can't see enough of it from the ground, and we don't have adequate eyes and ears in space. We need more tools, both terrestrial and on-orbit, to fully observe, characterize, predict, and respond to what is going on in Earth-orbit space. Some increased funding was provided for this through United States Air Force space budget accounts in the President's recent budget submission to Congress; not much, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

The second dimension of SSA is extraterrestrial and deep space. We need to be aware of everything we possibly can in the universe. Now, that is a tall order. It calls for all sorts of astronomical instruments, telescopes, sensors, and the people to operate them. It requires astronomers, astrophysicists, and scientists facile in all spectra of light and radio characterization; and it requires the patience to stare 13+ billion years into the past. But we need to do this. The universe is expanding. It is changing. This is affecting us in ways we do not know. There are threats out there we cannot possibly imagine - much less formulate a response to. Planetary defense is no joke. Just ask the dinosaurs.

The third dimension of SSA is relative transparency among space actors. What I'm talking about here is simply that all of us who are active in space need to have relationships and mechanisms to keep each other appropriately informed about what we are doing, or planning to do, in the space environment. We want to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. We want to make sure that our space systems and operations do not pose a threat to one another. We want to be able to share and encourage best practices for safety and debris mitigation. And we want to encourage the kind of improved communication that comes from increased trust. Service-to-service, agency-to-agency, company-to-company, and country-to-country relationships that improve transparency are key to SSA.

Finally, we need to improve public SSA. What do I mean? Simply this - when it comes to space, the public is frequently ill-informed or clueless, and this jeopardizes a lot. For example, given that both the United States and Russia have been operating militarily in and through the space domain for nearly 50 years, the current Russo-Chinese proposal to ban space "militarization" is a Red Herring and a joke. Both countries already have their own capabilities and are only maneuvering to prevent parity for other nations or the superiority of American capabilities. As another example take the United States space exploration program, which is egregiously underfunded and remains so because the public generally believes that NASA expenditures are much higher than they really are.

Space situational awareness is much more than an Air Force program. It's an attitude, a philosophy, and a strategic approach to managing the future of civil, commercial, and national security space.

One way to gain great SSA is to participate in the 24th National Space Symposium, April 7-10 at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. It's the greatest annual gathering of the space community anywhere in the world, and in just four days you'll feel you've gained world class space situational awareness! The entire Space Foundation team looks forward to seeing you there.

This article is part of Space Watch: March 2008 (Volume: 7, Issue: 3).