Report of the Commission on the Geopolitical
Impacts of New Technologies and Data

Chapter 6. Assured space operations for public benefit

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The growing commercial space industry enables ready access to advanced space capabilities for a broader group of actors. To maintain trusted, secure, and technically superior space operations, the United States must ensure it is a leading provider of needed space services and innovation in launch, on-board servicing, remote sensing, communications, and ground infrastructures. A robust commercial space industry not only enhances the resilience of the US national security space system by increasing space industrial base capacity, workforce, and responsiveness, but also further advances a dynamic innovative environment that can bolster US competitiveness across existing industries, while facilitating the development of new ones.

The fast-growing critical dependence on space for national security, the global economy, and public-benefit interests makes assured space operations essential for ensuring a more free, secure, and prosperous world.

As smaller satellites become more capable, large constellations of government and commercial platforms could increase space mission assurance and deterrence by “eliminating mission critical, single-node vulnerabilities and distributing space operations across hosts, orbits, spectrum, and geography.”1John J. Klein, The Influence of Commercial Space Capabilities on Deterrence, Center for a New American Security, March 25, 2019, accessed March 26, 2021,; US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work’s speech to the Satellite Industries Association, March 7, 2016, accessed March 26, 2021,; Government Accountability Office, Military Space Systems: DoD’s Use of Commercial Satellites to Host Defense Payloads Would Benefit from Centralizing Data, July 2018, GAO-18-493, accessed March 26, 2021, Advances in commercial space also enable exploring our planet’s oceans, monitoring for climate change-related risks, and mapping of other parts of our solar system.

The fast-growing critical dependence on space for national security, the global economy, and public-benefit interests makes assured space operations essential for ensuring a more free, secure, and prosperous world.

Finding 6: The US commercial space industry can increase its role in supporting national security.

The National Space Strategy2White House, “An America First National Space Strategy,” accessed March 26, 2021, includes four areas of emphasis: resilience, deterrence, foundational capabilities, and more conducive domestic and international environments. It envisions improved leverage of, and support for, the US commercial industry. The Defense Space Strategy Summary3Department of Defense, Defense Space Strategy Summary, June 2020, accessed March 26, 2021, highlights that the rapidly growing commercial space industry is introducing new capabilities as well as new threats to US space operations. A main effort in this strategy is to cooperate with industry and other actors to leverage their capabilities.

“Space Policy Directive-2—Streamlining Regulations on Commercial Use of Space,” provides support for the US commercial space industry.4Executive Office of the President, “Streamlining Regulations on Commercial Use of Space,” Federal Register, Space Policy Directive-2 of May 24, 2018, accessed March 26, 2021, In support of the overall policy of the executive branch to promote economic growth, protect national security, and encourage US leadership in space commerce, the directive requires reviews of the launch and reentry licensing for commercial space flight, the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, the Department of Commerce’s organization of its regulation of commercial space flight activities, radio frequency spectrum, and export licensing regulations.5Ibid.

The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) report on the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) use of commercial satellites6Government Accountability Office, Military Space Systems, 4 describes several potential benefits of including more responsive delivery of capabilities to space and increasing deterrence and resilience due to the larger number and distribution of commercial constellations of satellites.

Finding 6.1: Large constellations of small satellites are being developed.

The development of small satellites enables the proliferation of very large constellations of satellites. For example, several companies are currently planning constellations of communications satellites comprising an aggregate deployment of several thousand satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). In total, the communications capacities could exceed tens of terabytes. This enables low-latency, high-bandwidth communications to any region, bringing valuable educational opportunities to underserved populations, and supporting new data-intensive communications in advanced countries.7Matthew A. Hallex and Travis S. Cottom, “Proliferated Commercial Satellite Constellations, Implications for National Security,” Joint Forces Quarterly 97 (2nd Quarter 2020), accessed March 26, 2021, Small Earth observation satellites are being deployed in constellations of hundreds of platforms by several companies. These can produce global coverage with revisit intervals ranging from minutes to hours. Several types of sensors are being deployed including electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar, and radio signal collection.8Ibid. Companies in the United States, Europe, Russia, and China are actively pursuing these new capabilities.9Ibid.

The ability to image any area, and to communicate with any area, will become commercially available to any individual, group, or government. Coupled with access to cloud computing and big data analytics, innovations will occur in many fields, e.g., precise, real-time weather and soil condition data for farmers to increase yield, ship tracking to aid logistics, indicators of disease spread to inform a pandemic observation network, and the like.

Large constellations may also contribute to deterrence. The larger number of platforms operating in conjunction with major military satellites may make the entire constellation more resilient.

The commercial space industry is developing satellite servicing capabilities. This helps extend the operating life of each satellite, though the ability to operate near another satellite is viewed negatively by adversaries.

Finding 6.2: There is increasing focus on cybersecurity for commercial space systems.

The “Space Policy Directive 5”10White House, Memorandum on Space Policy Directive-5—Cybersecurity Principles for Space Systems, presidential memoranda, September 4, 2020, accessed March 26, 2021, specifies the US policy for managing risks11Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, April 9, 2021, accessed April 16, 2021,; Todd Harrison, Space Threat Assessment 2021, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 31, 2021, accessed April 16, 2021, to the growth and prosperity of its commercial space economy is to rely on “executive departments and agencies to foster practices within Government space operations and across the commercial space industry that protect space assets and their supporting infrastructure from cyber threats and ensure continuity of operations.” Several cybersecurity principles provide the foundation for these efforts, though the directive expects space system owners and operators to be responsible for implementing cybersecurity practices and does not address enforcement actions. No timeline for the development of regulations is provided.

Finding 6.3: The UN Outer Space Treaty (OST) requires interpretation to determine when emerging commercial space platforms become targets.

The growth in the commercial satellite industry will lead to lower-cost satellites with advanced sensors, communications, on-board computation, and security capability. Over time, each small satellite, when operated in large constellations, could be more useful for military purposes.

A key determinant in the application of the UN OST to the question of whether the military can use commercial satellites is “whether the commercial satellite is actively making a contribution to military action.”12“Practice Relating to Rule 10. Civilian Objects’ Loss of Protection from Attack,” ICRC IHL Database, Customary IHL, accessed March 26, 2021, For example, if the military is using a commercial communications satellite to relay its messages, the UN OST does not view the communications satellite as a military target. Full consideration of the treatment of dual-use commercial satellites is not settled and will evolve as more nations participate in the commercial space industry.13P.J. Blount, “Targeting in Outer Space: Legal Aspects of Operational Military Actions in Space,” Harvard National Security Journal Features, accessed March 26, 2021,; Yun Zhao, Space Commercialization and the Development of Space Law, Oxford University Press, July 30, 2018, accessed March 26, 2021, Yet, because nations like China and Russia already target (terrestrial) commercial networks as part of their computer network exploitation campaigns, it stands to reason that they will not necessarily recognize a distinction between commercial and military satellite targets.

Finding 6.4: The development of constellations of small satellites beneficial to the military may require government support.

Commercially viable capabilities in small satellites are advancing, but may not be sufficient for some military needs at this time.  For example, the resolution of an electro-optical sensor for surveilling traffic is not useful for target identification, though it may be useful for tracking troop movements. A balanced policy would require the government to focus on the more exquisite capabilities that only it can provide, while relying on the commercial sector to meet other requirements.  The government can also do more to send a signal to the markets that it supports these constellations and their capabilities by purchasing commercial data and services, thereby helping to ensure a strong commercial industrial base.

Finding 6.5: Government support for commercial space activities can be strengthened.

The growth of the commercial space industry occurring in several major countries14Congressional Research Service, Commercial Space: Federal Regulation, Oversight, and Utilization, updated November 29, 2018, accessed March 26, 2021, requires a review of US commercial space policy15American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2019, H.R. 2809 — 116th Congress (2019-2020), accessed March 26, 2021, as the roles of government and commercial industry change in key areas. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is establishing a wholly commercial capability to land humans on the moon (from lunar orbit), in contrast with the prior approach of government control of human spaceflight.16Congressional Research Service, Artemis: NASA’s Program to Return Humans to the Moon, updated January 8, 2021, accessed March 26, 2021, There are efforts to consolidate and streamline the regulatory framework and organizations for US commercial space capabilities.17Jeff Foust, “Commerce Department seeks big funding boost for Office of Space Commerce,” SpaceNews, February 16, 2020, accessed March 26, 2021, To support greater innovation and bolster US commercial space industries, recently proposed legislation identified ways to make the commercial space licensing process simpler, more timely, and more transparent.18In the 115th Congress (2017-2018), the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act (H.R. 2809) and the Space Frontier Act of 2018 (S. 3277) include provisions to streamline the licensing process. These efforts attempt to balance commercial interests against the government’s need to ensure the commercial space capabilities meet national security and foreign policy requirements. Such balancing may be less important as sensitive imagery becomes more available from foreign companies. To address urgent new requirements—e.g., on-orbit servicing of a space force, or continuous global observation in support of climate study, agriculture, and ocean systems—the government may require new policies to support increasing reliance on commercial space industries and new commercial space capabilities.

Approach 6: Accelerate the development and deployment of dual-use commercial satellites, including applications to Earth and space exploration.

The United States should use the emerging commercial space industry, and large constellations of small satellites, to enhance the resilience of national security space missions. This will require a deliberate strategy to guide commercial system developments, and this must be balanced with benefits that accrue to the public. The United States should, with its allies, examine how to interpret current treaties when considering the new commercial space capabilities. The United States, its allies, and private industry should implement global Earth and space observation capabilities.

Recommendation 6: Foster the development of commercial space technologies and develop a cross-agency strategy and approach to space that can enhance national security space operations and improve agriculture, ocean exploration, and climate change activities; align both civilian and military operations, and international treaties to support these uses.

Recommendation 6.1: Ensure federal investments in the commercial space industry deliver public benefits.

Congress should pass legislation that directs the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to lead an interagency initiative that develops an economic impact assessment of existing and future government investments in the US commercial space industry, as well as a public-private investment strategy for technology innovations and operating efficiencies that will ensure subsequent benefit to the public interest. Such benefits should contribute to global access to open data sets—via a space-based Internet, space-based cloud storage and computing—of Earth observation, global health, humanitarian applications, and other areas; it should also include suitable sharing of government-funded data collections among other government programs. A cross-agency group including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), relevant federal departments, private industry, and allied nations should develop the plans and partnerships for global Earth and space observation in support of environmental security.

Recommendation 6.2: Foster commercial space technologies of strategic importance and protect these from foreign acquisition.

Congress should direct a cross-agency group including NASA and the Department of Defense to conduct a joint review19National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Memorandum of Understanding Between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the United States Space Force,” September 2020, This does not address foreign acquisition of commercial space technologies of strategic importance of dual-use commercial space technologies and capabilities that are of strategic importance to national security space missions. The scope includes communications, on-orbit storage and computing, large constellations of small platforms, sensing, space situational awareness, satellite protection, launch, and on-orbit servicing. Congress should direct a streamlined licensing process and simplify regulations where appropriate. Such dual-use technologies should be reviewed for protection from foreign acquisition by the expanded authorities of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS)20Congressional Research Service, The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), updated February 14, 2020, accessed March 26, 2021, and by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The broadened role delineated by the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (FIRRMA) enables CFIUS to review noncontrolling foreign investments in critical technologies and critical infrastructure in the US space industrial base. Congress should direct an assessment of how the FIRRMA reforms have been applied and the resulting effect.

Recommendation 6.3: Harden the security of commercial space industry facilities and space assets.

The administration should designate the commercial space industry as a critical infrastructure sector and develop a sector-specific plan for its protection. The Department of Commerce should be assigned as the Sector-Specific Agency and should work with international standards-setting groups to harden select commercial space capabilities, e.g., protect communications against cyber threats.

The cybersecurity of both military and commercial spacecraft is a growing concern. Threat actors are devoting more attention to attacking both the software/IT supply chain as well as vulnerabilities in the cyber defenses on spacecraft. Large commercial mega-constellations of small satellites are performing an increasing range of business and communications functions, yet do not necessarily conform to high cybersecurity standards. The US government does not have standards for the design of cyber-secure commercial satellites, though it is introducing self-certification programs for commercial satellite providers.

The administration should extend the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) cybersecurity maturity standards, guidelines, and best practices to the space domain, covering the space, link, ground, and user segments. The cyber-resilient design principles should consider the following: “Intrusion detection and prevention leveraging signatures and machine learning to detect and block cyber intrusions onboard spacecraft; a supply chain risk management (SCRM) program to protect against malware inserted in parts and modules; software assurance methods within the software supply chain to reduce the likelihood of cyber weaknesses in flight software and firmware; logging onboard the spacecraft to verify legitimate operations and aid in forensic investigations after anomalies; root-of-trust to protect software and firmware integrity; a tamper-proof means to restore the spacecraft to a known good cyber-safe mode; and lightweight cryptographic solutions for use in small satellites.”21Brandon Bailey et al., Defending Spacecraft in the Cyber Domain, Aerospace Corporation, November 2019, accessed March 26, 2021,

Recommendation 6.4: Establish the conformance of emerging commercial space constellations to multinational agreements.

The United States should lead a conference to assess future developments in the commercial space industry with respect to the UN OST, the Artemis Accords,22National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The Artemis Accords: Principles for Cooperation in the Civil Exploration and Use of the Moon, Mars, Comets, and Asteroids for Peaceful Purposes, accessed March 26, 2021, and other international agreements that may be constructed. The objective is to clarify the acceptable use of commercial space assets as these become of greater use in supporting militaries.

Commercial capabilities may, over time, provide essential portions of space-based surveillance, reconnaissance, communications, refueling, data storage and processing, and maintenance. As new military space capabilities become possible, there is an increased risk that these will be interpreted as “making an effective contribution to military action” and thereby become legitimate targets. These capabilities may include imaging satellites, communications satellites, space networks, satellite maintenance vehicles, launch vehicles, and so forth. A key area to clarify is the legal and technical assessment of what qualifies as “making an effective contribution to military action” involving space technology.23Dr. Cassandra Steer, Why Outer Space Matters for National and International Security, Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, University of Pennsylvania, January 8, 2020, accessed March 26, 2021,; Jackson Nyamuya Maogoto and Steven Freeland, “Space Weaponization and the United Nations Charter Regime on Force: A Thick Legal Fog or a Receding Mist?” International Lawyer 41 (4) (Winter 2007): 1091–1119,, accessed March 26, 2021,; Blount, “Targeting”; Theresa Hitchens and Colin Clark, “Commercial Satellites: Will They Be Military Targets?” Breaking Defense, July 16, 2019, accessed March 26, 2021,

Recommendation 6.5: Develop space technologies for mega-constellations of satellites that support monitoring the entire planet pervasively and persistently, at high resolution and communicate the information in near-real time.

The administration should develop autonomous space operations technologies for large-scale constellations. This program, led by the DoD, NASA, and other elements of the national security space enterprise, would use AI technologies to minimize or eliminate human requirements for satellite control, information collection, and information analysis; and increase the speed of the information-to-decision loop.

The administration should encourage commercial space companies to develop cost-effective technologies that increase the survivability of commercial satellites as the operating regions become more crowded or contested. This may enable commercial satellites to operate in a greater variety of conditions, thereby providing expanded value to the United States.

The administration should develop and conduct Challenge Prizes funding opportunities for autonomous satellite operations on single platforms, i.e., for applications where highly capable satellites autonomously manage their own complex taskings, and also work as part of a large collection of similarly autonomous satellites.

The administration should use the model of the NASA Tipping Point solicitation to develop the capability to continuously monitor the world’s oceans—in particular, using space-based sensors—for the impact of climate change and other issues of global importance. This program would be jointly managed by NASA, NSF, and DARPA with collaborations from the European Union (EU) and other participants. This multiyear initiative would help establish a global, real-time Earth oceans observation network and the supporting autonomous control, communications, and data analytics capabilities. In addition to space technologies, this program could also support the development of surface and underwater vehicles to perform this function. The Department of State should address the treaty implications of large numbers of remotely-piloted and autonomous surface and underwater vehicles and develop new international agreements where needed.