Side event on charting a course for a sustainable space environment

November 5th, 2019

The UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), the Secure World Foundation and Project Ploughshares—with support from the Government of Belgium, came together to host a First Committee side event, “Navigating space: charting a course for a sustainable space environment”. The event focused on contemporary dynamics in outer space in the context of emerging technologies, and how they could inform multilateral discussions on the prevention of an arms race in space.

The afternoon panel focused on the importance of space situational awareness (SSA) within the framework of satellite behavior and patterns. The speaker panel had an opportunity to demonstrate the commercial sector’s capabilities in tracking and characterizing the behavior of objects in space. Speakers also introduced various research and development projects that employed open source data (OSD).



Mr. Bob Hall, Technical Director of Analytical Graphics Inc, started off the discussion by highlighting  how emerging technology has led to an explosion of commercial capabilities that could support analysts in monitoring activities over an extended period. His company, for example, was able to use data from the public domain – that was provided by the United States – to conduct observation. His company tracked the movement of the Russian Luch satellite in the geosynchronous (GEO) belt as it maneuvered close to satellites operated by other entities. He made a particular point about an abrupt maneuver made by Luch, after the United States publically disclosed the identity of a military satellite orbiting nearby. This event, he said, underscores the connection between political signaling, risk reduction and transparency in outer space activities. A second demonstration displayed tracking data of a satellite apparently performing post-insertion testing in synchronous with its discarded booster before maneuvering to its final orbit.

Mr. Hall concluded that continuous observation allowed analysts to recognize changes in object behavior when they occurred. He added that the collected data could be used to establish a baseline for a variety of highly predictive models through the application of machine learning tools.

Mr. Kiernan McClelland of Space Strategies Consulting (SSCL)  addressed the challenges of government-provided SSA data, in contrast with the presentation by Mr. Hall. He highlighted three main concerns: data risk: information could be omitted due to special national space operations; limitations of space law treaties: there are no legal requirements on States to notify of space activities, beyond the registration of objects launched into orbit; and, finally, geopolitical tensions: States could release unverifiable information for political gain.

Mr. McClelland maintained that it was difficult to achieve a complete understanding of the global space environment based on government SSA data alone. Risks affiliated with miscalculation or miscommunication could cause an escalation of tension in space and increased traffic from commercial space actors intensify these risks. Mr. McClelland pointed to OSD as a way to alleviate some of these challenges, which can add transparency in a way government are not always able to do without the risk of revealing potential sources. Finally, Mr. McClelland highlighted the implications of combining OSD with data analytics. More specifically, how artificial intelligence (AI) could augment a human analysts’ ability to process complex social interactions, which would result in improved situational awareness.

Complementing the presentation by Mr. McClelland, Ms. Cassandra Steer, also from SSCL, introduced OSCAR, a tool the company had adapted to augment SSA. During a four-day trial, OSCAR was able to collect hundreds of thousands of pieces of information from online platforms – primarily social media and news articles – and filtered out pertinent data. She suggested the results meant that AI could augment the human capacity, further enabling OSD to supplement current SSA. On the basis of the analysis generated by OSCAR, SSCL hopes to be able to characterize the purpose and functions of objects launched into orbit, including analysis on the underlying policy or political motives. She estimated that their tool required approximately five more years of development before it could be made available to government or commercial users.

Text and photos by Leila Hmaidan