Thursday, 24 February 2005

Losing Track

Go to any satellite tracking web page, and this is what you're likely to get:
Due to existing National Security Restrictions pertaining to access of and use of U.S. Government-provided information and data, all users accessing this web site must be an approved registered user to access data on this site.
Note: We sincerely regret that due to changes in federal regulations we are no longer able to publish ISS pass predictions!
NASA Spacelink :
NASA Spacelink has Moved
NASA Spacelink and other information providers across NASA are moving content into the NASA home page. The NASA home page is now the best place to find the type of content you have come to expect from Spacelink. The Spacelink team looks forward to serving you through NASA's premier Web site
But if you go to the NASA site, there's nothing on satellite tracking. Nada. Zip. Tiddly-squat. Bugger all.

Why? From CelesTrack:
As a result of legislation passed by the US Congress and signed into law on 2003 November 24 (Public Law 108-136, Section 913[PDF]), Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has embarked on a three-year pilot program to provide space surveillance data—including NORAD two-line element sets (TLEs)—to non-US government entities (NUGE). This service was to be established "not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment" of Section 913 or by 2004 May 22 (paragraph (i)). AFSPC officials have indicated that the NASA OIG web site—which is the source of CelesTrak's data—would be operated until 2004 October 1 (less than two months from today) to allow users to get the information necessary to plan their transition to this new data service. This transition time is extremely important because Public Law 108-136 prohibits the redistribution of the data obtained from this new NUGE service "without the express approval of the Secretary" [of Defense] (paragraph (d)(2)).

Unfortunately, as of this date, AFSPC has yet to establish this service or even notify the satellite user community of the pending change in data dissemination practices. As a result, there is no information on the timeline for the transition, the process required to obtain access to the new system, the policies regarding who can obtain data, how much they can obtain, and how frequently, or even the specific system processes required for users to integrate the new data source into their existing processes. Without this information and sufficient time to notify users and allow them to implement the necessary changes, a wide variety of current satellite operations activities may be adversely impacted.
Update #10 (2005 February 11): After a week without any new data from the NASA/GSFC OIG web site, the following notice was posted there today:
The OIG web site has encountered severe technical difficulties which cannot be overcome. The OIG web site will continue to run a once per day update of TLEs. Real time updates cannot be done. Please go to the Space-Track web site for real time data. The OIG site will be permanently disabled on 3/31/05. If other problems are encountered to render the site useless, a notice will be posted to the Space-Track web site. 02/11/2005
Update #11 (2005 February 14):...The following notice was posted on the NASA OIG web site today:
As of February 10, 2005 the NASA/GSFC OIG web site experienced non-recoverable hardware and software failures. As of Monday 2/14/05 no further attempts to recover the system will be made. Please go to the Space-Track web site for TLE information. 02/14/2005
It appears there will be no new data from NASA, despite the promise of a 90-day transition period.
HobbySpace has an accurate summary.
Congress, in its collective ham-fisted oafishness, dictated after 9/11 that the government place restrictions on access to spacecraft tracking information. Apparently, this will keep terrorists from shooting down comsats with RPGs.

Such access previously has been free and easily obtained from NORAD. Various services redistributed the tracking data to astronomers, satellite tracking hobbyists, space radio enthusiasts, etc. Tracking programs such as CelesTrak, for example, can automatically update their satellite tracking elements.

Recently, however, a NASA site that provided tracking data has gone off-line, despite a promise of a 90 day transition period. Users must now go to Space-Track to obtain the data. This only requires a free registration but users are not allowed to redistribute the tracking elements. So all those web sites and tracking programs out there will no longer be able to provide current data, at least if they are US based.

See, for example, SatPasses, which provided tracking predictions as to when the ISS would pass over US cities. Now the site says:
Note: We sincerely regret that due to changes in federal regulations we are no longer able to publish ISS pass predictions!
I'm sure the ISS astronauts now feel much, much safer from terrorist assaults!
Congress once again shows that it is incapable of making sensible policies with respect to space that carefully and effectively targets the particular problem without causing devastating collateral damage to nearby legitimate activity.
So right now, thanks to ill-thought-out legislation, a replacement well behind schedule, and a catastrophic hardware and software failure of the "temporary fix", the Internet is a Trackless Waste.

Hat Tip Transterrestrial Musings

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