A Virtual Observatory for Space Situational Awareness data?

In June 2018, the US Government released a National Space Traffic Management Policy. This document, known as SPD-3, summarises the economic and societal drivers for developing new capabilities to enable continued safe operations within an increasingly congested space environment. It sets out the US perspective on what is required to enhance existing Space Situational Awareness (SSA) facilities so that they can provide effective support to Space Traffic Management (STM), which it defines as “the planning, coordination and on-orbit synchronization of activities to enhance the safety, stability, and sustainability of operations in the space environment”.

One of SPD-3’s specific recommendations is the establishment of “an Open Architecture SSA Data Repository” intended to “improve SSA interoperability and enable greater SSA data sharing”. To an astronomer, this is remarkably reminiscent of the Virtual Observatory (VO) that has been under incremental development for almost two decades, under the aegis of the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA). The IVOA represents a wide range astronomical facilities and projects, and it has overseen the development of several dozen standards, along with the software implementing them, to create an open, distributed system that has made the world’s major astronomical data resources interoperable and greatly facilitated the sharing of data within astronomy.

The similarities between the VO and the vision set out in SPD-3 appear very striking. SSA involves the same range of survey and targeted observations as astronomy, using similar instruments and generating similar types of data product, which, in the same manner, yield spatio-temporal records for objects of interest that form the basis for further analysis. But, how deep are the analogies between the two domains? Could VO standards simply be adopted by the SSA community, or do the commercial and safety factors present in the SSA world, but not in astronomy, mean that different approaches must be taken, despite the apparent similarities?

By bringing together experts from the two domains, GNOSIS can answer these questions, and determine the extent to which important goals now being discussed at the highest levels within government can be met by the repurposing of techniques and technologies that already exist within astronomy.

Cover photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash.

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