Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 89

Submission from Space Insight Limited


  1.1  This written submission is unusual in that it addresses the need for the UK Space Policy to include the subject of the surveillance of space. The authors recognise that this subject is not within the primary scope of the Science & Technology Committee's review but would argue that without its inclusion, Space Policy lacks an essential part of its foundations.

  1.2  There are regulatory, commercial, and military benefits to the monitoring of space objects.

  1.3  UK Space Policy should explicitly include space monitoring. The UK should adopt a national programme to support its own independent capabilities and to participate in ESA/EU surveillance of space initiatives.


  2.1  Space Insight Limited provides space observation and monitoring services to two UK Government bodies: BNSC and the MoD's Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL). Staff working for the company have more than 20 years experience in the surveillance and monitoring of space objects.

  2.2  In particular, Space Insight staff were responsible for the design, development, implementation, data analysis and day-to-day operation of an optical space surveillance demonstrator project run by the Defence Intelligence Staff. From 1995-2005 this project used five robotic optical telescopes to track satellites in the higher Earth orbits (including GEO, GTO, MEO, and HEO). These telescopes provided a regular feed of information to US Space Command. Company staff have been members of official UK Government visits to the Pentagon, NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Complex, and various DoD space surveillance facilities.

  2.3  Currently, Space Insight is working with BNSC and DSTL on new space surveillance concepts and has installed a sensor called Starbrook on an MoD base in Cyprus. The company and BNSC are now using this sensor to evaluate innovative and efficient methods for monitoring space objects.

  2.4  Company staff are chosen by BNSC to provide expert technical support at ESA meetings and other forums. For example, company staff are members of the UK delegation to the Inter-Agency Space Debris Co-ordination Committee, an inter-governmental forum which advises the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space about space debris issues.


  3.1  The environment within which Earth orbiting satellites operate is becoming increasingly crowded. Each year, launches have added new objects to the resident space population of man-made objects faster than the rate of attrition by atmospheric decay. Whilst the number of annual launches is lower than its historic high in the 1970s and 1980s, the total number of objects continues to increase year on year.

  3.2  Despite this, the monitoring of objects in space is often disregarded when space related issues are being considered and we would argue that this is a serious omission. There are three primary reasons why monitoring space activity should not be disregarded; monitoring is needed:

    —  to check compliance with regulations and good practice;

    —  to know what is in space and what it is doing; and

    —  to reduce risk and ensure safe operation.

  3.3  We review briefly each of these reasons before examining the current limitations in the UK's access to space monitoring information. We then suggest points of emphasis for a future Space Policy which would remove or lessen these limitations.


4.1  Compliance with regulations

  4.1.1  The UK has entered into a number of international treaties regarding the use of Outer Space. Treaty articles place with each State the responsibility and liability for activities in space carried out on its behalf or by entities based within it; the activities of non-governmental entities require authorisation and continuing supervision by the launching State. A space monitoring capability can provide an expert witness service in the event of liability disputes under space law.

  4.1.2  The UK, through the Outer Space Act, requires that all objects launched into space by UK organisations and companies are registered with BNSC. The Act places requirements on the licensee regarding the conduct of operations and disposal of objects placed in space. To meet its supervision obligations, the UK requires a capability to monitor compliance with both UK law and international treaties.

  4.1.3  In addition, there is significant international activity towards the establishing of ISO standards for space object design and debris mitigation. Because satellites are being made ever-cheaper by a wide range of manufacturers, standards to minimise debris production and to specify de-orbiting timescales are essential for the protection of the space environment. However, without monitoring, adherence to standards cannot be audited.

4.2  Knowledge gathering

  4.2.1  Surveillance of space is becoming an increasingly important national security issue. There are now 45 countries [1] that have satellites in space and this number will increase as satellite and launch costs decrease. These satellites have many dual-use (ie civilian and military) capabilities which can be utilised in times of conflict. For example, ground imaging normally used for crop studies could also be used to monitor movement of UK troops in a theatre of conflict—accurate knowledge of the disposition of other nations' satellites could improve the safety of operations by British forces.

  4.2.2  The MoD acknowledges [2, 3] that it requires a detailed knowledge of the disposition of friendly and hostile space objects—ie a Recognised Picture for space—to complement its existing Recognised Pictures for land, sea, and air.

4.3  Safe operation

  4.3.1  Space has been treated as if there were no limits on the number of objects that could be sent into orbit in much the same way as the skies were seen as limitless in the early days of air flight. With an increasing number of objects, the assumption of limitless space has ceased to be valid and space control is becoming recognised as an important issue that can no longer be ignored.

  4.3.2  Accidental collisions between objects in space have already been detected. The best documented of these was the collision in 1996 between the French Cerise satellite and a piece of debris from an Ariane launch vehicle.

  4.3.3  Users of space are largely left to self-manage the safety of the objects that they launch and are expected to obtain any information regarding other objects already in orbit from their own sources. It is largely left as a matter of trust that operators obey the license requirements placed on them by law and treaty obligations.

  4.3.4  Clearly the use of space will need to be more tightly controlled and monitored in future; space traffic control will become as necessary as air traffic control is today.


  5.1  Currently, the primary source of data regarding the orbits of objects in space is a catalogue produced by the US Space Command (part of the US Department of Defense's Strategic Command). Historically, the primary purpose of the monitoring of space objects by US Space Command was for ballistic missile warning, with the generation of a space object catalogue as a by-product. More recently, the importance of space has been recognized by the US military and the role of US Space Command has evolved to include a much wider range of activities including space control.

  5.2  The US Space Command catalogue of objects is released into the public domain some days after it is produced, is of limited accuracy, and is deliberately incomplete. For example, the US policy is to withhold information on objects until their origin is determined. These restrictions result in the information on which many organisations rely being dated, inappropriate for purpose, or absent. A UK satellite operator cannot obtain the accuracy that is necessary for tasks such as collision avoidance, and would not know if information about other objects was being withheld because of US national or third-party interests.

  5.3  Recognising the limitations of the US catalogue, the European Space Agency, in conjunction with the European Union, is looking at setting up its own space surveillance network to provide an independent source of information better suited to European needs (which include management of, and risk assessment for, the Galileo constellation). It is expected that proposals for this system will be placed before the ESA Ministerial meeting in 2008 for approval. Data products from any resultant system will not be available for some years.

  5.4  Within the UK, RAF Fylingdales is the only operational space surveillance radar. The UK's operation of this US-procured radar underpins UK access to the US catalogue, as described above. Although ~95% of the radar's time is dedicated to US Space Command, the UK does have ~5% of the time for national use. We understand that no funding is available for the use of national time on the Fylingdales radar with the consequence that the UK has not developed the resources to leverage other benefits from its operation of this valuable facility.

  5.5  The high latitude of the Fylingdales radar places restrictions on the detectability of objects launched from low latitude sites, such as those launch sites in China, Iran, and North Korea.


  6.1  Space Insight recommends that the UK Government recognises the need for space monitoring and control as a core activity underpinning the UK's future utilisation of space and without which the other aims of the UK's Space Policy may be compromised. Therefore, monitoring of the space population and awareness of the requirement for space control should be explicitly included in any future Space Policy.

  6.2  Specifically, Space Insight recommends that the Space Policy should promote the development and operation of national capabilities to ensure that the UK civil authorities, armed forces, and non-governmental organisations can obtain appropriate information of known provenance about the space population and the space environment. The UK should initiate a national programme to support the existing optical space surveillance activity, to fund use and exploitation of national time on the Fylingdales radar, and to expand monitoring coverage.

  6.3  With its experience and expertise, the UK is well placed to take a central role in planned EU/ESA surveillance of space initiatives. The Space Policy should commit to full participation in these initiatives at the earliest opportunity with the aim of providing the UK with monitoring information about space from a balanced portfolio of national and European capabilities.

REFERENCES  [1] See POSTnote 273 Military Uses of Space, December 2006, published by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

  [2] See Future Air and Space Operation Concept, published by Directorate of Air Staff.

  [3] See Royal Air Force—Strategy, 2006, published by the Ministry of Defence.

January 2007

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