Tracking debris and space traffic is a growing challenge for the US military

General James Dickinson: Space traffic management should be transferred to a civilian agency as soon as possible

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – When the US Space Command was established in 2019, the unit responsible for monitoring space traffic tracked around 25,000 pieces of debris in orbit. Three years later, the number has risen to over 47,000.

“And it continues to increase,” US Space Command chief General James Dickinson said Aug. 9 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium.

“If you think about the resources it takes to keep track of all that in orbit, it’s very difficult,” he said.

Increases the workload 18th Space Defense Squadron is the rapidly increasing pace of deployment of satellites by nations and commercial companies. “Much of this growth and development is beneficial,” Dickinson said, but the duties associated with managing space traffic are straining the resources of the squadron at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.

“They’re doing some remarkable work. They’re doing all the predictive analysis to determine if one of these pieces could put the International Space Station or other spacecraft at risk,” he said.

“The amount of debris is very concerning. We want to make sure we don’t have a low Earth orbit that we can’t operate safely in,” Dickinson said. “And if you read the national defense strategy, it talks about having a safe and stable and secure operating environment in the space domain.”

Those operators at Vandenberg must also keep an eye on hostile activities and “increasing challenges from our competitors,” Dickinson said. A Russian missile destroyed a satellite in a test in November 2021, creating a large cloud of debris that is putting satellites at risk in low earth orbit. Russia also recently launched asatelite allegedly in a lane near a US government satellite.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Dickinson said there are only about 100 Space Force Guardians supporting space tracking, and they are under strain. He wants to see Space Command spend less time managing traffic and more time tracking potentially nefarious activities by US adversaries.

Space Command is ready to begin handing over space traffic management duties to the Commerce Department as soon as possible, Dickinson said.

The office for room trade is required to carry out Space Policy Directive 3, a four-year-old policy that directs the Commerce Department to take over civilian space traffic management responsibilities currently handled by Space Command. That includes providing warnings to satellite operators about potential close approaches between their satellites and other space objects.

“They’re working with us right now,” Dickinson said of the Office of Space Commerce. Now Congress has done it allocated funds for this office, the hope is that the transition can go ahead, he added.

“When they step up with that ability, it’s going to be really important for us,” Dickinson said. “Tracking should be a civil liability.”

The goal is a division of labor, “where they do the routine task that we are doing right now. And that will allow the limited resources that I have to do the things that we need them to do, which is better characterization of things that are going on in orbit, especially of some of our competitors.”

Trade officials said the transition starting in 2024. Dickinson said he would like to see Commerce reach that goal. “If they have the resources they need, I think they can probably pull it off.”

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