What is SSA?
Definition: Space Situational Awareness, or ‘SSA’ means our ability to survey the space environment and safely operate within 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, 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 other entities or nations. SSA also means identifying potential harmful natural phenomena in space, such as 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. Such technologies and services often include the tracking of space objects via ground stations, accessing space-object tracking databases, as well as the launching of space-based SSA hardware. These methods enable operators to realise varying levels of awareness that are appropriate for 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 enough ‘room’ in space to to undertake their activities safely.
More information in relation to meaning and scope of STM is available in the United States Space Policy Directive 3.
This involves the analysis of collected SSA 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 avoided or potentially 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, including those relating to liability and insurance.
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 they are acting responsibly and safely in outer space. Under both international and domestic law – various 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 deemed 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 Regulator 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 public safety 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 must be considered regardless of whether the activities are conducted in outer space, on the Planet’s surface, or both.
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 launch of spacecraft, additional criminal sanctions may apply. Violation may further constitute grounds for the Regulator to vary, suspend or revoke an operator’s licence(s) or authorisation(s).
It is vital that licensees are aware, to the furthest extent possible, the impact their anticipated activity will have on the space environment and the actions of 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.
An expectation to undertake some degree of SSA is also implied 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 all ‘appropriate measures’ they intend to implement to ensure any debris caused by their activities is dealt with in compliance with international debris mitigation guidelines and 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 which party is at 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.
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 any space activities undertaken by their citizens. This means the Australian government expects commercial space operators based 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 national compliance.
There are no explicit international legal obligations to engage in SSA activities, however, doing so is most likely necessary to achieve compliance with a variety of basic and fundamental legal principles.
Under Article IX, States (and the citizens 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 achieve 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 required to retain a national register of space objects. They must also share collected tracking information with other State Parties in order to ensure responsibility can be attributed 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 Regulator with details of their space objects and activities, including (amongst other things) anticipated orbital parameters, information regarding the launch facility and functions of spacecraft/satellites.
The liability regime established by the Liability Convention is broadly reflected in Australian law. As a general rule, it means that States (and the citizens 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 party who has allegedly caused the damage. 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.
important to know
The importance of effective Space Situational Awareness is recognised across legal jurisdictions and national borders. On 16 December 2020, NASA released the first iteration of its Spacecraft Conjunction Assessment and Collision Avoidance Best Practices Handbook.
The Handbook aims to improve transparency and public understanding of the methods NASA implements to conduct its space activities safely. By sharing this information, the US Government hopes to encourage commercial operators to adopt its recommended practices and be made aware of publicly available SSA data.
While the practices outlined in the Handbook are voluntary, they provide a valuable resource to understand the processes involved in realising effective SSA throughout various space-mission phases. Practices outlined in the Handbook may be applied or modified by Entrepreneurs to formulate their own SSA strategies. The Handbook covers topics such as pre-launch SSA preparation, manoeuvrability, in-orbit guidance, collision avoidance, and satellite constellation management.
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 to collaboratively work toward establishing and improving SSA in order maintain the accessibility and safety of the space environment.
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, scrutiny and control.
Seek Legal Advice If:
- You are uncertain if, or suspect that, your activities involve the collection, analysis and/or dissemination of potentially sensitive information.
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. An altitude of 100 km above mean sea level does not necessarily reflect any scientifically determined consensus of where ‘outer space’ actually 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 national activities in outer space can use registration as a means to ensure it has appropriate ‘jurisdiction and control’ over those activities to ensure it international obligations and responsibilities are satisfied, particularly if it is at 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. That is, the violation may be treated as if if occurred within the State’s territory on Earth.
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 the sovereign ownership and control of the State of registry, formally identifying the ‘owner’ of the debris may be nearly impossible. It is also somewhat unlikely States would protest the removal of derelict space objects or debris 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 the 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 when choosing potential targets, remaining mindful of the risk of transgressing sovereign rights while conducting their 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.
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.
Visit the Space Track website for more information on available SSA and SSA services:
Visit the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) website for more information on international space law:
Visit the Australian Space Agency Website for more information on Australia’s space legislation:
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.