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Summary

Space Situational Awareness (SSA) plays an important role in ensuring space activities proceed safely, and in accordance with domestic and international laws, standards and other norms. It means understanding the space environment and being aware of any threats to space activities. Through SSA, issues like orbital collisions and space debris can be mitigated. Operators must remain mindful of their legal obligations, including in relation to liability, and with respect to the ownership and control of space objects.

Contents of this article

Understanding SSA

What is SSA?

Definition: Space Situational Awareness, or ‘SSA’ means our ability to survey the space environment and safely operate in it. SSA involves the tracking of space objects, understanding their activities, monitoring space weather events, and identifying potential threats to space activities.

Establishing Space Situational Awareness, or SSA, is an essential part of any space activity. Knowing where space objects are positioned in orbit, as well as their orbital trajectories and their status, allows operators to undertake missions safely, reduce the risk of collisions, and avoid interfering with the space activities of others. SSA also means identifying and understanding potential harmful natural phenomena in space, including electro-magnetic interference produced by ‘space weather’ events, and threats posed to spacecraft by asteroids.

SSA can be achieved by utilising a variety of existing technologies and SSA services, including the tracking of space objects via ground stations, accessing space-object tracking databases, and launching space-based SSA hardware. These methods enable operators to realise varying levels of awareness, appropriate to their specific needs and objectives.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

The most comprehensive SSA data sharing initiative is the ‘Space Track’ Project overseen by US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and the US Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC). The project offers various SSA services to space operators through its website, including manoeuvre assessment and collision warning notices. Additionally, operators who register on the site have the option to have their space objects added to the Project’s tracking catalogue.

Application of SSA

There is no singular end state of ‘achieving’ SSA. The extent of awareness desirable for an operator to reach depends on the nature of their activities, and what they hope to accomplish in outer space.

Generally, information revealed to an operator by undertaking SSA activities will fall into one of several broad categories:

  • Navigational information of satellites, spacecraft and debris, including their proximity to one another and approach vectors;
  • Information concerning the ownership, capabilities and functions of satellites and spacecraft, including their use of the electro-magnetic spectrum;
  • Information identifying and plotting the course of natural space objects, like asteroids;
  • Information relating to the monitoring of ‘space weather’.

Once collected, this information can be shared and applied to realise a variety of different functions, or ‘systems’ of SSA:

Space Traffic Management (‘STM’) involves the ‘planning, coordination and on-orbit synchronisation’ of space activities to ensure they are undertaken safely, without interfering with others, and without contaminating the space environment. It involves applying navigational and positional data to de-conflict launch, orbit and orbital manoeuvre trajectories of space objects to reduce the risk of collisions, and ensure operators have sufficient space to undertake their activities.

More information in relation to meaning and scope of STM is available in the United States Space Policy Directive 3.

 

Comprising activities involving the analysis of collected data to pre-emptively identify, monitor and prevent potential threats to space activities. Services might include the delivery of collision/close-approach warnings to satellite operators, or the monitoring of solar activity to anticipate events producing potentially harmful electro-magnetic interference. SSA information sharing agreements and databases may be used to deliver warnings to operators in cases where they do not have the necessary technical capacity, or resources, to undertake SSA on their own.

Knowing where space debris is means that it can be intercepted and removed from orbit. Gathering and applying SSA data will be instrumental for any operator seeking to undertake active space debris mitigation activities. Operators with these activities in mind need to be aware of the legal challenges involved.


Do I Have to Undertake SSA?

SSA to meet legal obligations

There are no explicit legal obligations that require space operators to undertake SSA. However, it is unlikely an operator can operate effectively, or meet certain minimum safety thresholds, without remaining aware of the space environment and the activities of others.

It is important that operators understand that undertaking SSA, or procuring SSA information from a credible service provider, is necessary to ensure it is acting responsibly and safely in outer space. Under both international and domestic law, conditions of licence approval, safety and liability apply. From these conditions, it is possible to at least infer an expectation that operators will undertake SSA to a level appropriate for their anticipated activities.

Under Australian law

It is a condition for the granting of a Standard Australian Launch Permit, High Power Rocket Permit, Overseas Payload Permit and Return Authorisation for the Minister to be satisfied that the anticipated space activity:

  • will not be performed in a way likely to cause substantial harm to public health and safety; or
  • cause substantial damage to property.

For Launch Facility Licences, the risk to the public and likelihood of causing property damage must be as low as reasonably practicable.

In all cases, the mitigation of risk to the public and likelihood of causing property damage applies in outer space itself, as well as terrestrially.

Licensed space activities must be performed safely, without endangering the public, and in a way that minimises the likelihood of causing substantial damage to property.

Violation of this condition at any stage during the course of an activity will attract civil penalties. In the case of activities involving the launching of spacecraft, additional criminal sanctions may apply. Violation may further constitute grounds for the Minister to vary, suspend or revoke an operator’s licence or authorisation.

It is vital that licensees are aware, to the furthest extent possible, the impact their anticipated activity will have on the space environment and other operators in outer space. As an example: knowing where a satellite will be situated in orbit, in relation to other space objects, is essential to ensure orbital trajectories do not intersect dangerously, and to know what manoeuvres can be performed without placing other objects at risk. Neglecting to undertake SSA may result in an event that breaches these safety conditions, particularly if it causes some form of damage to infrastructure on the ground or to another space object.

IMPORTANT TO KNOW

Both civil and criminal penalties apply to licensees who fail to comply with licence conditions, including those relating to public safety and property. For individuals, the maximum criminal penalty for breaching a licence or return authorisation condition is 10 years imprisonment, 5,500 penalty units, or both. For a body corporate, penalties rise to 100,000 penalty units. Civil penalties are generally capped at 1,000 penalty units.

Undertaking some degree of SSA is additionally implicitly mandated in Australian law by the requirement for all Launch Permit and Overseas Payload Permit applicants to accompany their licence applications with a debris mitigation strategy. The strategy must be formed with the applicant’s specific space activities in mind and meet minimum content requirements prescribed by the Space (Launches and Returns) (General) Rules 2019 (AUS). Operators are required to set out and describe any and all ‘appropriate measures’ they intend to implement to ensure any debris caused by their proposed activities is dealt with in compliance with internationally mandated debris mitigation guidelines, and in accordance with internationally recognised debris assessment models. The Rules outline various factors requiring consideration in a debris mitigation strategy, including: how debris will be limited, how the risk of orbital collisions will be minimised, and how to reduce the chance of spacecraft break-ups during the operational and post-mission phases. It is recommended you review the Space (Launches and Returns) (General) Rules 2019 (AUS) to properly understand what is required when drafting a debris mitigation strategy.

Neglecting to undertake SSA may also have implications in assigning liability for damage caused by space objects in outer space, as it may have some bearing on determining fault.

Seek Legal Advice If:

  • You are unsure if your activities meet minimum safety requirements;
  • You are concerned that previous conduct may attract legal penalty.

Getting Legal Advice

Use Case Example: Breach of Return Authorisation Safety Condition

ANGELS Aerospace is the operator of a medium size Earth-imaging satellite that is equipped with its own propulsion system. The satellite is established in sun-synchronous orbit, has been operational for several years, and is reaching the end of its operational life.  Periodically, the satellite undertakes ascent manoeuvres to maintain its established orbital altitude. Before an ascent manoeuvre is performed, it is standard company procedure to submit a manoeuvre plan to the JFSCC ‘Space Track’ SSA information service. Any new close-approach, collision avoidance or conjunction warning notifications are then reviewed before the manoeuvre is finalised and performed. The Australian Space Agency is impressed by these practises, and the company successfully obtains a Return Authorisation in anticipation of deorbiting its satellite once its operational life comes to an end.

A year later, the decision is made by ANGELS Aerospace to deorbit its satellite. The company is under pressure to dispose of its old satellite so that it can focus resources and expenditure on developing and operating a new and improved satellite platform. The deorbit planning is rushed, and the Mission Director neglects to request deorbit and re-entry support from the Space Track service. On its descent, the satellite intercepts and collides with a non-manoeuvring communications satellite, operated by another Australian company. Both satellites are completely destroyed, and a large debris field is created.

ANGELS Aerospace is found to have breached the condition against endangering public safety or causing damage to property in the course of a return activity, and incurs 100,000 penalty units. Its application for a Launch Permit for its new and improved satellite is denied pending an investigation, and civil proceedings are initiated against it by the operator of the second satellite.

Under International Law

An aim of international space law is to ensure the equal, free and responsible use and exploration of outer space, without threat of unwelcome interference or limitation by others.

Important to Know

The Outer Space Treaty assigns national responsibility and supervisory functions to State Parties over space activities undertaken by their nationals. This means the Commonwealth Government expects commercial space entities in Australia to comply generally with international law. Some aspects of international law, such as the liability regime established under the Liability Convention, are replicated generally in Australia’s domestic legislation, to ensure compliance nationally.

There are no explicit international legal obligations to engage in SSA activities, however, doing so is likely necessary to achieve compliance with a variety of basic and fundamental legal principles.

Under Article IX, States (and the nationals they are responsible for) are expected to undertake space activities with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other State Parties. Activities are to proceed in the spirit of mutual assistance and cooperation, with efforts to avoid harmful contamination of space or interference with the activities of others. If harmful interference with another State’s activities is anticipated, consultations should take place to facilitate understanding between the parties affected and appropriate mitigation.

An operator can demonstrate its regard for the space activities of others by remaining situationally aware of its space objects, the space objects of others, and the state of the space environment generally. Launches, as well as orbital maintenance and re-entry manoeuvres, should not be attempted without first assessing mission parameters, identifying potential for interference and, where possible, making the necessary changes to avoid that interference. Monitoring the proximity of space objects to others, sharing tracking information, and developing capabilities to mitigate or avoid harm before it occurs, are general objectives an operator should strive to fulfil in ensuring its activities remain safe and compliant with international law.

Articles of the Convention are generally focused on overcoming informational challenges in space activities. State Parties are mandated to retain a national register of space objects, and to share collected tracking information to assist other Parties in establishing responsibility for actual or anticipated damage by unidentified space objects.

Registration requirements are implemented in Australia under the new Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS). Holders of Australian Launch Permits, Overseas Payload Permits and Authorisation Certificates are obligated to provide the Minister particulars of their space objects and activities, including (amongst other things) anticipated orbital parameters, details of the launching facility and functions of spacecraft/satellites.

The liability regime established by the Convention is broadly reflected in Australian law. As a general rule, it means that States (and the nationals they are responsible for) will be absolutely liable for damage caused by their space activities on Earth. For damage caused in outer space, an evidentiary burden falls on the complainant to establish actual fault on the part of the responsible party.  This process of establishing fault is ultimately one that will require engagement of SSA systems to ascertain intercept vectors, orbital parameters and the operability of space objects – all factors that may impact on an operator’s ability to anticipate and mitigate harm.


SSA Data Sharing

International law designates outer space as an open domain, free to be used and explored by all. It is in the interests of all States, in order maintain the accessibility and safety of the space environment, to collaboratively work toward establishing and improving SSA.

The Australian Government has been pro-active in entering arrangements to bolster national SSA capabilities.

  • In 2010: A Joint SSA Partnership was formed with the United States to build new SSA infrastructure on Australian soil, and establish information pathways between the two governments for the exchange of collected SSA data;
  • In 2012: A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Australia and the United States building on the 2010 Joint Partnership, committing to the establishment of new space object surveillance equipment in Western Australia;
  • In 2013: Another agreement was signed, designed to streamline the process for Australian space operators requesting information services from the US ‘Space Track’ website.

What are the legal challenges in providing data sharing services?

Many private companies have been established, in Australia and elsewhere, to provide a range of SSA services to assist small operators in safely conducting activities in outer space.

Entrepreneurs interested in providing SSA services need to be mindful of the types of legal challenges that might arise in the course of their activities. SSA data may be considered sensitive by certain entities, particularly if it relates to the position, trajectory or manoeuvres of assets with national security significance. If collected data enables the identification of sensitive assets, even incidentally, a service provider may become subject to government interest and scrutiny.

Use Case Example: Potential Repercussions for Sharing Sensitive Data

ANGELS Aerospace is a medium-scale commercial space company, specialising in providing space situational awareness services via data it collects from several ground tracking stations it is has established across Australia. The company has customers from all over the world, including private space start-ups based in India, China, the United States and the United Kingdom. The growth and success of the company has motivated the board to have it publicly listed on the ASX, attracting investors from Australia and overseas.

One service the company provides its customers is access to its extensive space object tracking database. Customers have the option of submitting particulars of their own space objects and missions to the company, which are then entered into the database to enable the provision of discrete on-orbit data notifications, including close-approach warnings and manoeuvre safety assessments.

The methods used by ANGELS Aerospace to identify and track space objects cannot in themselves identify their nature, function or allegiance. A piece of space debris, for example, returns the same signature as a government communications satellite. Formal identification of the catalogued objects requires a third-party to provide correlating information.

Whilst reviewing ANGELS’ space object database, a Defence official notices an unidentified catalogued entry with orbital parameters matching those of a classified Australian Government remote sensing satellite. The official refers the matter to his superiors, who determine ANGELS’ activities pose a real risk of disclosing sensitive national security information to foreign adversaries.

The matter is referred to the Commonwealth Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB), who identify a security risk in allowing foreign individuals to invest in a company that may (inadvertently) disclose sensitive material relating to Defence space assets. The FIRB makes various recommendations, having the effect of limiting ANGELS’ activities via Defence Export Control procedures.

Seek Legal Advice If:

  • You are uncertain if, or suspect that, your activities involve the collection, analysis and/or dissemination of potentially sensitive information.

Getting Legal Advice

Dealing With Space Debris

Technologies and systems designed to track and monitor functional spacecraft and satellites have the dual purpose of being able to identify, plot and quantify orbital space debris.

Space debris poses a significant and ongoing threat to our ability to access and operate safely in outer space. Undertaking active debris mitigation measures provides a valuable benefit to the international space community and represents a potentially lucrative business model for commercial entities developing debris removal capabilities.

Operators interested in providing debris removal services must be mindful of certain legal challenges that may limit their activities.

‘Jurisdiction and control’ of space objects

‘Space debris’ has not been formally defined under either international or domestic law. For the purposes of international treaties; spacecraft, satellites, discarded rocket bodies and fairings remain ‘space objects’, regardless of their level of functionality or purpose.

DEFINITION OF SPACE OBJECT

The meaning of ‘space object’ is deliberately broad under both international and Australian law, so as not to inadvertently limit the scope of treaties or legislation.

Under international law, ‘space object’ is only defined as:

  • Including component parts of a space object, as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof.

Australian law seeks to broadly define ‘space objects’ by an intention for them to be placed and operated from outer space. ‘Space object’ means:

  • An object the whole or part of which is to go into or come back from an area beyond the distance of 100 km above mean sea level; or
  • Any part of such an object, even if the part is to go only some of the way towards or back from an area beyond the distance of 100 km above mean sea level.

It is important to note that the classification of ‘outer space’ beginning at 100 km above mean sea level is  adopted in the Space Activities (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (AUS) for purely regulatory purposes, and does not reflect any scientifically determined consensus of where ‘outer space’ conclusively begins.

Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty confers ‘jurisdiction and control’ of space objects to the country on whose national registry the object is entered and recorded.

A State that is responsible for a national activity in outer space (including for activities of non-governmental entities, even if they are entirely independent of the government in status and conduct) can use registration as a means to ensure it has appropriate ‘jurisdiction and control’ to help meet its responsibilities, especially if it is as risk of becoming liable for damage caused by space objects as a ‘launching State’.

Australian legislation makes provision for the government to be indemnified by commercial space operators for any damage their activities have caused, usually by means of mandatory insurance.

‘Jurisdiction and control’ also has the effect of extending a State’s exclusive enforcement jurisdiction beyond its territory into outer space. Any interference with a State’s registered space object can, and often will, be treated as an actual violation of its sovereign rights.

What does it mean for space entrepreneurs?

A large amount of the debris in orbit is comprised of fragmented spacecraft, satellites, rocket fairings and upper stages. While technically remaining under sovereign ownership and control of the State of registry, formally identifying its allegiance may be near impossible, and it is unlikely any State would protest its removal from orbit.

There are some ‘objects’ in orbit that remain largely intact, capable of identification, and with potentially sensitive equipment or material onboard. Attempting to approach, capture and de-orbit such objects would technically constitute a violation of the sovereignty of the State of registry, and may attract formal protest. This is complicated by fact that many commercial satellites possess ‘dual-use’ capabilities (meaning: both civil and military uses). While a foreign commercial operator may be open to, and accept, another company de-orbiting its non-operational satellite, the State responsible for the foreign operator may take a different view.

Operators interested in engaging in active debris mitigation must be careful choosing potential targets, remaining mindful of the risk of transgressing sovereign rights while conducting activities. Directly consulting or contracting with the State legally responsible for identified debris (in addition to any commercial entities involved) may be one approach to provide debris mitigation services without risking legal complications.

USE CASE: ‘Jurisdiction and Control’

ANGELS Aerospace is a small-scale space start-up, developing a unique technology designed to safely and efficiently remove medium-to-large pieces of space debris from low Earth orbit.

For its first mission, the company has identified a large solar panel, believed to have broken off an Australian telecommunications satellite during a stage-separation malfunction. The body of the satellite was de-orbited once mission failure became obvious, but the solar panel remains in orbit and is posing a threat to other spacecraft on a similar orbital inclination.

ANGELS Aerospace contacts the Australian telecommunications satellite operator, engaging appropriate legal channels to produce a written memorandum of understanding providing it permission to de-orbit the solar panel. One provision of the MoU is an indemnity by ANGELS Aerospace, providing that it will assume all liability for any damage the solar panel might cause once its course has been disturbed by the ANGELS spacecraft. The price charged for this service reflects the risk that ANGELS Aerospace accepts.

Seek Legal Advice If:

  • You are unsure if your anticipated activities risk violating a State’s exclusive enforcement jurisdiction;
  • You are unsure how to determine the allegiance, ownership or control of identified space debris.

Getting Legal Advice

Link Sources:

Visit the Space Track website for more information on available SSA and SSA services:
https://www.space-track.org/documentation#/odr

Visit the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) website for more information on international space law:
http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/index.html

 

Visit the Australian Space Agency Website for more information on Australia’s space legislation:
https://www.industry.gov.au/strategies-for-the-future/australian-space-agency

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Not explicitly, however, engaging in SSA to some extent will most likely be necessary to meet legal obligations under both domestic and international law.

It is also a good idea, to ensure space activities remain safe, sustainable and effective.

There are many companies that provide SSA services to commercial space operators, both in Australia and overseas.

Certain SSA services can also be accessed via the United States Strategic Command ‘Space Track’ initiative. Agreements signed between the US and Australian governments have provided special benefits and privileges to customers based in Australia.

Matters of liability are challenging and legally complex. It is recommended you engage professional legal advice if you find yourself in this kind of situation. Information presented on this web resource should not be considered a substitute for, or relied upon in lieu of, professional legal advice.

Liability for damage caused by space objects is determined according to domestic legislation. Generally, if the damage occurs on Earth, you will be held absolutely liable (subject to certain exceptions). If damage occurs in outer space, a complainant will have to establish their harm occurred because you acted in a certain way, or failed to act in a certain way (you were at fault). The failure of a third party SSA service provider to provide its customer a conjunction warning (if it was so engaged to provide that service) in time to allow mitigative action might be enough to absolve the customer of fault for any subsequent collision.