Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Next Space Age

The theme of the 25th National Space Symposium was "The Next Space Age." I wrote summaries of each speaker and panel, which you can find on the National Space Symposium Website. Speakers tended to address the changing aspects of the space industry, including growing costs, the increase in the number of countries that are using space, and the advances in capabilities of other countries. They noted that space activities are no longer the exclusive arena of the United States and Russia, but now include Europe, China, Japan, Iran, and others.

Speakers talked about the increase in commercial space activity, and the importance of how space is used in everyday life. (You probably know GPS and Sirius/XM Radio depend on satellites, but did you know that satellites are required to allow ATM banking transactions, pay-at-the-pump services at the gas station, and precision farming? Almost all of the weather predictions, including those for hurricanes and natural disasters, depend on satellite data. And there are many, many more uses, but I won't try to list them all here.)

They also talked about the increasing risks to space assets - it's very difficult, if not impossible to protect satellites from threats, including jamming or disabling the satellite using a laser or by destroying it. Even a non-state actor could easily pose a threat. Given the great dependence of society on these assets, this is a growing concern.

Another theme was the growing importance of international cooperation in space. Since the cost of space activities are so large, countries will need to work more closely in the future. This is not only true for exploration and space science, but also for monitoring climate change and even for space security.

It's important to monitor where objects are in space to prevent collisions, a capability called Space Situational Awareness (SSA). The United States currently operates the most extensive SSA system, but Europe (mostly France), and Russia have some capability as well. Commercial satellite companies have telemetry data, which tells them where their own satellites are located. Speakers talked about the possibility of combining these data sources to create a more robust SSA system. This would benefit everyone involved, because instead of building new sensors and duplicating each others efforts, they can combine their existing assets to have greater precision. However, this process will not be easy. In addition to commercial satellites and debris, there are national reconnaissance (spy) satellites in space. Sharing information on these is necessary to prevent collisions, but is clearly sensitive. Information sharing methods among nations, or even between the government and commercial companies have not been developed. It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the future.

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