From The Editor | February 7, 2024

Charting The Sky: Space Domain Awareness In An Evolving Space Landscape

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor

GettyImages-878855462 Satellites

Space agencies around the world are gearing up for a busy year with numerous launches on the docket. Space domain awareness is crucial to ensure the safety and security of space operations, as well as for detecting, characterizing, and countering threats to space systems.

This year promises to be a busy one in terms of space launches. NASA has more than a dozen scheduled while SpaceX plans to launch 148 rockets, 50 more than last year. In January alone a total of 22 launches took place including Axiom Mission 3, a private spaceflight to the International Space Station carrying Alper Gerzeravci, Turkey’s first astronaut to space.

The missions of these flights include researching habitable exoplanets, landing the first woman on the moon, searching for microbial life, and providing crucial services including cellular connectivity, satellite imaging, and GPS technology.

Someone has to take responsibility for all of these artificial objects in space, something commonly referred to as space domain awareness (SDA). In the U.S. military, that task is the responsibility of Space Domain Awareness & Combat Power, the Space Systems Command’s (SSC) Program Executive Office (PEO) focused on delivering cyber, ground-, and space-based systems that rapidly detect, warn, characterize, attribute, and predict threats to national, allied, and commercial space systems, while also providing National Security deterrence capabilities countering those identified threats to prevail in a space conflict.

SSC operates knowing that “perpetual and prolific space domain awareness is a foundational requirement for the continued, sustainable use of space. The need is all the more urgent in today’s contested and congested space domain where satellites are proliferating, adversaries are demonstrating aggressive behaviors, and additional threats are emerging. These new threats necessitate dominant and resilient combat power that can gain and maintain space superiority.”

Be Aware, Take Care

SDA helps keep both space and Earth safe by predicting when and where space junk will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, detecting newly manufactured objects in space, and charting the present position of space objects and plotting their anticipated orbital paths. In addition, SDA can:

  • Prevent a returning space object, which to radar looks like a missile, from triggering a false alarm in missile-attack warning sensors
  • Produce a running inventory of manufactured space objects
  • Determine which country owns a re-entering space object
  • Inform countries whether or not objects may interfere with satellites and International Space Station orbits
  • Provide data for future anti-satellite weapons systems

SDA is essential for maintaining a safe and secure space environment, enabling continued exploration, communication, navigation, and scientific research in space. As space becomes increasingly congested and contested, the importance of SDA continues to grow, driving advancements in technology and international cooperation to address emerging challenges.

Given the global nature of space activities, SDA often involves international cooperation and collaboration. Countries share data and resources to improve space surveillance capabilities and ensure the safety and sustainability of space operations for all stakeholders.

This Space For Rent

Located on the fringe of South Australia’s dark sky reserve in the Mid-Murray region sits The Oculus Observatory, a space observatory designed, built, and managed by Silentium Defence that delivers the widest field of view and the most cost-effective monitoring of objects in orbit, anywhere in the world.

It was opened in December 2021 and was the first space observatory in the world to use a passive radar system to track objects in low Earth orbit, notes the Australian Space Agency. The observatory features an Astrosite neuromorphic imaging sensor from Western Sydney University whose eye-like camera detects changes in light and takes pictures to reveal the size and trajectory of objects that caused them. Due to the size of space, it can capture, maintaining the visibility of objects will remain significantly longer, boosting situational awareness for commercial and governmental applications.

The observatory has been designed and delivered with almost $1.5 million in support from the Australian Government under the International Space Investment initiative. There are plans for the observatory to host multiple surveillance sensor types including optical and narrow-field-of-view sensors to support Australia’s broader civil and defense ambitions of true sovereign capability in space situational awareness.

Silentium Defence is not the only private company partnering with clients interested in SDA. Major players in the market include L3Harris Technologies, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Polaris Alpha Advanced Systems Inc., Honeywell International Inc., and a host of others, according to Research And Markets.

SDA market size has grown strongly in recent years and is forecast to from $1.41 billion in 2023 to $1.53 billion in 2024 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.1%. The growth can be attributed to increasing space activity, a focus on space debris mitigation, expanding satellite services, national security priorities, and international cooperation in space-related initiatives.

“A prominent trend in the space situational awareness market is technological advancement,” writes Research And Markets. “Major companies in this sector are actively engaged in technological advancements to maintain their market positions.

“For instance, in April 2022, Fujitsu introduced new technology for mapping and analyzing space debris, consisting of a Space Situational Awareness System (SSA) system, radar, and an optical telescope. The technology, integrated with JAXA's radar, can observe around 10,000 objects daily, including tiny ones, facilitating automated collision likelihood determination and route adjustments to prevent potential collisions with space debris.”

Military/Commercial Partnership

The SSC’s Race to Resilience program aims to deliver lethal and resilient space capabilities to our nation's warfighters to ensure we stay ahead of the threats in space by 2026, the ultimate SDA. Emerging threats singled out by SSC include cyber-attaches, directed energy weapons, electronic warfare, direct-ascent kinetic anti-satellite weapons, orbital attacks, and high-altitude nuclear detonation.

To reach this goal SSC will rely heavily on commercial collaboration. “Partnering with commercial industry allows us to cast a wider innovation net, including non-traditional partners and cutting-edge startups,” SSC writes. “It also gives us speed. SSC’s Victus Nox mission exemplifies how these kinds of partnerships are helping us deliver capabilities in two- to three-year sprints versus the much longer time frames of our predecessors.”

Commercial collaboration also lowers cost and reduces non-recurring engineering, which allows for more off-the-shelf solutions that enable faster response when augmentation or replacement is needed.

“Today’s reality of an increasingly contested, congested, and competitive space domain underscores the critical need for a more resilient space architecture: one that the U.S. and allied nations can rely on to perform during times of crisis and conflict, whether accidental, intentional, or environmental,” writes SSC. “Working in partnership with agencies, allies, and industry SCC is leading the race to resilience. 2026 is a key target in our timeline to develop, deliver, and sustain capabilities that empower our warfighters, protect our nation, and ensure prosperity.”

The resilient space architecture SSC and its partners are building will span the entire structure, from on-orbit constellations to ground stations, networks, data systems, and mission-critical support facilities. It is intended to be cybersecure, proliferated and redundant, employ diversified orbits, and have the ability to reconstitute quickly as and when needed.

SSC notes that 2026 is not an endpoint but a critical near-term goal because it keeps the U.S. “ahead of the People's Republic of China, aligns with an evolving geopolitical landscape in the Pacific, and directly addresses emerging threats from adversaries that are developing capabilities that could disrupt our operations in space.”

SSC is not alone in integrating SDA with its defenses. The U.S. Army released a new “vision” document foot-stomping the importance of the land service’s space operations and citing an “urgent need” for more funding for both new capabilities and trained personnel, according to Breaking Defense.

“The Army’s next fight will occur across multiple domains. Successful operations in and through the space domain will be critical to our success,” the Army Space Vision Supporting Multidomain Operations states. “Commanders must understand that space capabilities start and end on the ground and be fully aware of their importance in planning and operations.”

The two-page document highlights the Army’s concerns regarding the constant surveillance from adversary space systems in future fights. To counter this threat, the Army plans to invest in the knowledge and forces to enable their space systems and disrupt the adversary’s use of their space capabilities. The service will employ service-unique assets to interdict ensuring the Army gains and maintains an advantage to fight from positions of relative strength in all domains.