Space Domain Awareness issues

My post and news search last week got my attention on Space Domain Awareness (SDA), and then we spoke about it in class for a few minutes. So, this week I looked for more articles on that subject. It grabbed my interest because it seems like something I thought we had a good grasp on. A lot of satellites are even tracked by enthusiasts using ephemeris data. It turns out I was wrong. Last week the article I read had a quote from a deputy undersecretary about our SDA not being at a level precise enough to determine normal activity from abnormal or even nefarious activity. This week the article I read (it was published in April 22) quoted the Commander, U.S. Space Force Gen. Dickinson saying, “We need to enhance our understanding of the congested and complex space operational environment, to include what is occurring and when, and the intent behind those engaged in such actions.” [1]. If we don’t have good SDA, then we won’t be able to know who’s who in the zoo or where they are. Last October, China launched a satellite into orbit capable of literally throwing other satellites into a different orbit. This was recently demonstrated when they “moved a dead Beidou satellite from a Geo orbit into a higher “graveyard” orbit” [2]. Russia also wants to have a leg in space but is “going about it at a slower rate than China”[1]. Now add in CubeSats, space junk in the form of dead satellites, dropped astronaut tools, and broken pieces of satellites, and the picture starts to become very complex. There are thousands of items to track, and each time Starlink or others sends a rocket up full of CubeSats, they add about 50 – 60 more to the environment. For this reason, SDA is becoming a bigger and bigger concern for governments and the private sector.

Why is poor SDA a security threat? Honestly, for the same reason, it’s dangerous to walk around Baltimore at night with your earbuds in and not pay attention to your surroundings. The U.S. government used to have a monopoly on space that is rapidly disappearing due to other nations (China/Russia) and commercial industries. So, SDA is a security threat because if we do not know what is happening around us, we will only be able to react to attacks and not deter, prevent, or respond. We’ve already talked about the fact that we still have older satellites in operation and that all you need to establish a connection is to know where the vehicle is and transmit the proper signal. Not knowing who is where would only increase the risk to all satellites because unauthorized connections could be made or attempted, data intercepted, or even altered en route. What takes a lot of power from the Earth’s surface would take substantially less power from orbit. Using a vehicle in orbit also mitigates any horizon issues we experience on Earth. Additionally, poor SDA enables proximity operations “which are nothing new and happen all the time” between nations but could become a problem for the industry as more satellites work with the DoD and intelligence agencies. Additionally, as OSAM vehicles become more critical to space missions and technology advanced, there is a threat to how the manufacturing process is conducted and what is being developed in orbit.

[1] S. Erwin, “Space domain awareness: A secret weapon against shadowy threats in orbit,” Apr. 14, 2022. (accessed Sep. 27, 2022).

[2] S. Erwin, “Private industry aims to fill demand for space threat intelligence,” Sep. 18, 2022. (accessed Sep. 18, 2022).