“I became well acquainted with the policy debate around space situational awareness, particularly many countries saying we don’t trust the U.S. government to be the sole source of truth on where things are in space,” said Brian Israel, who served as a State Department’s representative to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space between 2012 and 2016.
“There were proposals to endow the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs with space situational awareness capabilities,” he added. “…I realized it’s not necessary to have some trusted third party, which was the elusive piece of the puzzle in policy debates.”
Previously, the tool was restricted to a small group of space enthusiasts who helped test the site. Now hundreds of people — mostly in the United States and Europe — are submitting data, Israel said.
Israel, who was also a legal counsel at Planetary Resources before the company was bought by ConsenSys to form ConsenSys Space in 2018, also spoke about ways the company is trying to make TruSat more user friendly.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What has the reaction been since you unveiled TruSat last fall?
We released a prototype of TruSat on Oct. 21. … It’s been very well received by the community that’s concerned with long term sustainability of space activities and space situational awareness more generally. It is a very different approach than what’s been done before. … All sources of space situational awareness data that I’m aware of are controlled by a single entity. … What the world sees is the output, but not any of the raw data or algorithms that would allow analysts to run their own math and assess the confidence of that. We had engineered TruSat directly to improve those dimensions to make a space situational awareness product that could be deemed reliable and trustworthy by a diverse range of actors that rely on them.
As I’ve talked with government officials from around the world, they have seen TruSat as a prototype for an even more ambitious system than we had envisioned initially. … In this initial embodiment of TruSat, hobbyists are making satellite observations in their backyard and reporting it to TruSat … but governments could theoretically feed data into it with their own sensors. . … Particularly for governments for whom space situational awareness isn’t a national security issue, if they were to operate their own cameras and telescopes, and feed data into a centralized system, you could have an open sensor system with more sensors and more useful data.
How does it work?
The easiest and most reliable method right now is to use a digital SLR camera. There are freely available apps on the web like Heavens Above that will tell you based on your location where and when to look to find a particular satellite. If you know how to operate the camera, you can take a series of images that will show a starfield with a streak through it which is your satellite. Other free software … will create an initial orbit determination based on your GPS coordinates and the exact time of exposure. … TruSat will take those sorts of observations around the Earth and refine that into an orbit prediction.
There’s a community of hobbyists who enjoy the challenge of going out and finding the satellite and reporting it, but a lot of what we’ve been working on is trying to make the experience more accessible … for a broader swath of the population [using technology that exists like virtual reality star map apps.]
How many people are sending in data?
About 200 people signed up to be test pilots, when we first opened it up in October. People had to fill out a form. … We just switched that in the past week to allow anyone to set up an account and feed data in. It’s still hundreds, not thousands. Growing the community of citizen satellite observers will require us to make the task of reporting a satellite much easier.
How is does your State Department background play into this?
From 2012 to 2016, I was the U.S. representative to the legal subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. I became well acquainted with the policy debate around space situational awareness, particularly many countries saying we don’t trust the U.S. government to be the sole source of truth on where things are in space. That’s not a critique of the U.S. government, it’s just hard to find an entity that everyone trusts all the time.
There were proposals to endow the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs with space situational awareness capabilities. But when I began working with blockchain technology, I realized it’s not necessary to have some trusted third party, which was the elusive piece of the puzzle in policy debates. … Blockchain technology doesn’t require a trusted institution. Trust comes from the network, and a set of rules everyone is happy with, so everyone has high confidence it will execute. That will be a very powerful attribute for solving some of the trust challenges around space situational awareness.
Have you talked with Congress or the Trump administration about this technology?
We’re not talking with the administration or the Hill about TruSat specifically. I think people are interested, but more for personal curiosity on this different way of providing space situational awareness and solving a challenge that I think the Department of Commerce is grappling with. In Space Policy Directive-3, they have a mandate to create an open architecture space situational awareness data repository. … It’s essentially a way of fusing data from lots of commercial sources with possibly Air Force data to create a more robust data product.
TruSat is designed to be decentralized, so it’s not controlled by any entity. We see that as being integral to make it a source of truth accepted broadly around the world. One of the structural critiques of space situational awareness data is that there’s a single entity that controls it from sensor to output. Your trust in the data is limited to your trust in the institution.
Where are your users based?
Users are mostly in the U.S. and Europe at this point, but we’re working with organizations around the world to get people into this.
What are next steps?
The next area of priority is automating image processing. We found the most reliable method of hobbyists tracking satellites to be using digital cameras. Right now, someone who is doing that has to use a few pieces of software to extract orbital data from a picture and submit that to TruSat. … We want to automate that so someone could just upload pictures and TruSat could do that automatically.