Barbara Braun. Credit: Aerospace Corp.

LOGAN, Utah — For smallsat owners and operators, obtaining U.S. government approval to launch and operate spacecraft can sometimes take longer than developing the satellite.

When it comes to new services like rideshare and the emergence of non-traditional entrants, startups and non-U.S. launch opportunities, U.S. policy lags behind the pace of rapidly evolving technologies, says Barbara Braun, systems director of space innovation at the Aerospace Corporation.

“Good policy takes time to develop, but our industry is changing faster than policy,” she says.

Addressing the SmallSat Symposium here, Braun reviewed regulations on:

Satellite ownership

Frequency allocation

Orbital debris mitigation

Propulsion and proximity operations

Encryption

The use of lasers 

Rideshare missions like the Defense Department’s STP-2, or the December 2018 SSO-A mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9, leave launch service providers to sort out regulatory approvals and licenses for a plethora of satellites from different countries and agencies, both commercial and military in nature, as well as those developed by universities or small businesses.

“We might have hosted payloads on top of NASA satellites on top of a commercially procured launch vehicle, and it’s not clear who is responsible for what,” Braun says of the many gray areas unforeseen by the current policy structure.

Many of these policies are in the process of being updated, notably U.S. guidelines on orbital debris, encryption and propulsive maneuvering in orbit. What follows is a primer for navigating the complex maze of regulations, guidelines and rules that comprise existing U.S. national space policy.

Ownership

Determining who owns a satellite launched on a rideshare or other multi-spacecraft mission can prove baffling. Yet ownership is key to maintaining compliance with U.S. policies enforced by different government agencies.

For example, the range that launches a satellite is responsible for range safety, including informing operators as to any hazardous material associated with a spacecraft that may be prohibited during launch. The range also controls fueling operations, as well as transmissions and frequencies during pre-launch testing.

As for the rocket itself, the nature of the launch-vehicle provider determines the type of policy to be followed. In a rideshare scenario, a commercial launch vehicle is required to follow commercial policy, which calls for safe in-orbit delivery of all spacecraft attached to it. Once a spacecraft separates from the rocket, however, responsibility reverts to the agencies or other entities that own the spacecraft. But how is that ownership determined?

The STPSat-5. Credit: SNC

For example, STPSat 5, the Defense Department-owned satellite launched on a commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 as part of the SSO-A rideshare mission: Managed by Spaceflight Industries, the rideshare provider was responsible for safe orbital insertion of all 64 payloads, including the government-owned STPSat 5.

Until STPSat 5 separated from the Spaceflight Industries upper stage free-flyer, the satellite was under the control of Spaceflight, and thus subject to commercial regulations. “But once STPSat 5 separated from that upper stage free-flyer, it became a government satellite subject to government regulations,” Braun said.

Although STPSat 5 is owned by the DoD, the satellite was built and integrated by satellite manufacturer Sierra Nevada Corp. Post-launch, its science experiments and operations are being managed by NASA.

“Who gets to decide when this mission’s life is over?” Braun asked. “Even if we hand day-to-day decisions off to a company, in this case NASA, to operate it for us, we still make those final decisions, and we would be the ones to decide when the satellite reaches its end of life. So we own that satellite,” she said, referring to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Another example is a university cubesat developed with government funding.

“We had this on a couple of the satellites on STP-2 that were built by universities,” Braun said. “Even though they got some government sponsorship, they are university satellites because the university makes all the decisions for that satellite.”

Frequency Allocation

Obtaining frequency allocation is another policy hurdle determined by spacecraft ownership. A privately owned commercial satellite would seek uplink and downlink frequencies from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), while a DoD or NASA satellite would go through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Orbital Debris Mitigation

Launches of government satellites are required to work through their respective agencies to seek orbital debris mitigation approval. For private and commercial satellites, however, the FCC is the regulatory body that manages orbital-debris mitigation compliance.

“The only regulatory agency that governs satellites in space, when you’re not the DoD and you’re not NASA, is the people who can grant or deny your frequency license,” Braun said.

The FCC, which is in the midst of an update of its orbital debris rules, will not grant a commercial license unless it’s in the best interest of the United States. As a result, some commercial spacecraft operators have trouble obtaining FCC license because their potential risk for creating debris is too high.

In all cases, spacecraft must demonstrate they can meet the required reentry or disposal orbit requirements with 90% reliability, though different agencies may have varying standards for compliance.  For example, a cubesat orbiting above 600 km is unlikely to reenter the atmosphere within 25 years, “so you need to show that whatever device you’re going to use, whether it be propulsion, or whether it be a drag device of some sort, is at least 90% reliable, and this can be a subject of debate,” Braun said.

NASA provides Debris Assessment Software (DAS), free of charge, to orbital debris mitigation applicants. The tool is used by most U.S. agencies that screen for debris risk.

Propulsion, Proximity Operations and Maneuvering

Currently, in-orbit maneuvers executed by private and commercial spacecraft are not regulated.

“This may change, it is something of increasing concern,” Braun said. “Not just regular impulsive propulsion that we’re used to, but it’s awfully hard to track these low, continuous propulsive maneuvers that are happening. This unexplored territory and so this is something that we expect to see,” notably in the area of in-orbit satellite servicing, which she said is likely to be a topic of debate as the government rewrites the ODMSP.

Encryption

For private and commercial satellites, there is no requirement to encrypt uplinks or downlinks.

“A lot of people wonder how does the lack of encryption on your uplink and your ability to move around the sky translate to security in space,” Braun said. “One of the things I’ve seen discussed is the idea that if you do have translational propulsion greater than a certain amount — not attitude control propulsion but propulsion that can move you around greater than a certain amount — maybe you need to have some basic encryption on your uplinks and downlinks.”

DoD requires encryption on all of its satellites. NASA does not, but the agency does require an assessment of the criticality of protecting satellite data.

Hosted payloads present a unique challenge when it comes to encryption, as for most of these satellites, regulatory compliance falls to the host.

“If you’re a DoD hosted payload on a Taiwanese satellite, that doesn’t make that entire satellite subject to the FCC and debris-mitigation and so forth,” Braun said. “But that DoD data may be subject to encryption that you then have to apply to the host satellite or that you have to encrypt onboard and pass through that way.”

Lasers

Lasers on private or commercial satellites – whether for use in space or pointed at the ground – are not regulated. Compliance approval through the Laser Clearinghouse is required for DoD satellites, but for all others it is merely encouraged.

“There are some FAA rules, mostly involving lasers and aircraft that you have to watch out for if you’re using laser communications to the ground,” Braun said. “My idea is if you are a commercial or private satellite, talk to the Laser Clearinghouse, even though you’re not required to; they’re the ones who can give you the guidance you need.”

For operations near the International Space Station, NASA has a set of flight rules for use of any lasers near the orbiting outpost.

“You have to recognize this is not dealing with hunks of metal in space anymore, these are humans in space, and therefore you need to get started with their safety process very, very early,” Braun said.

All of these regulations are under review, and are being updated with input from industry and the public.

In the meantime, the Aerospace Corporation is developing a new service dubbed PETRA, for Performance Evaluation Technical Risk Assessment, and is seeking feedback from satellite industry stakeholders in the process.

“Good policy takes time, and the struggle is when the technology outpaces the policy,” she said. “But it’s best when the policy is informed by the people who have to abide by it.”

Contributing Editor Amy Svitak can be reached at aesvitak@gmail.com