Space Domain Awareness (SDA)

What is space domain awareness (SDA)?

Space domain awareness (SDA) is a military term, which means understanding of space – and the natural forces and human activity going on in the space domain. To gain that understanding, the US military operates sensors to gather data and intelligence. For any object in space, the military wants to know what it is and how it could affect the safety of US space assets. For example, using sensor data, the military can determine whether an object is a man-made satellite or natural debris. An object’s intent may be benign or malicious. As space becomes more contested, the US military must be able to identify malicious intent and respond quickly.

Space domain awareness (SDA) vs. space situational awareness (SSA)

The term space domain awareness started gaining popularity in 2019, when the Air Force Space Command published a memo explaining that the Defense Department now views space as a war-fighting domain. Before that, efforts to detect and characterize objects in space were referred to as space situational awareness. Space situational awareness is still common terminology today, though space domain awareness has become the military’s preferred terminology. 

The difference between space domain awareness (SDA) and space situational awareness (SDA) is that while SSA emphasizes object detection and tracking, SDA emphasizes both detection and characterization of intent. The military considers SDA to be more comprehensive than SSA and a more appropriate strategy, as the threat of aggression in space increases. By contrast, SSA is a more appropriate strategy for a benign environment, where traffic management and coordination is the primary concern.

What is the space domain?

The space domain refers to space – but through the lens of the military treating space as a war-fighting domain. Other war-fighting domains include land, air, sea and cyberspace. The Navy develops maritime domain awareness to support naval operations, while the Air Force develops air domain awareness. Similarly, the Space Force is investing in Space Domain Awareness. 

Why is the space domain important?

There’s two reasons why the space domain (and space domain awareness) is important for the military:

First, the US military wants to protect safe and sustainable access to space. Such access is already critical for the government and the economy at large (think satellite based communications). Growing congestion puts access at risk: the US Space Surveillance Network currently tracks more than 45,000 objects.

Second, space is becoming more contested than ever before. Just a few years ago, the military considered space to be a benign environment. Now, military policy assumes there’s a real risk of adversarial action in space. And the stakes are high: adversarial action against satellites could cause a breakdown of ground operations and disrupt US defense capabilities. 

Why is space domain awareness important?

The space domain is evolving rapidly. One key change is the number of satellites (and the number of satellite operators) in space. Over the past several decades, thousands of satellites have been launched into Earth orbit. To complicate things, there is no regulatory framework governing the launch and operation of satellites. Given the importance of satellites to military operations, in 2018, NATO formally recognized these dynamics as a critical challenge.

What is the need for space domain awareness?

New satellites are being launched all the time. But that’s not the only reason space is becoming more congested. In 2007, China demonstrated anti satellite capabilities–destroying a Chinese weather satellite and creating a large debris field, a move that has been called a “pivot point in the space community.” Russia demonstrated similar capabilities in 2021, creating another large debris field. Debris can have a lasting impact: 15 years after the 2007 demonstration, the International Space Station was forced to maneuver around the debris field created by the explosion.

More recently, the US military has been monitoring the use of what they call “inspector vehicles” – operated by Russian forces in close proximity to American spy satellites. Similarly, there are growing concerns over China’s use of robotic arms to tow satellites in space – with experts suggesting that these capabilities could be used to seize American assets.

With China and Russia actively testing anti-satellite technology, it’s imperative that NATO countries deploy technology to monitor and understand these and other capabilities. Only then can NATO militaries develop appropriate defensive counterspace strategies.

How is the Space Force investing in Space Domain Awareness?

As the need for space domain awareness capabilities has increased, the Department of Defense has ramped up investment in this area. Space Systems Command (SSC) is the procurement arm of the Space Force, which manages a $15B acquisition budget for the Department of Defense. Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power is one of six program offices within SSC.

The SDA and Combat Power program office focuses on two key initiatives:

  • Space Domain Awareness: Detecting and characterizing potential threats
  • Combat Power: Countering and deterring threats

In their 2024 budget proposal, the Space Force is recommending a $584M investment in space domain awareness, up by $100M when compared with 2023. The Space Force intends to concentrate SDA spending in geosynchronous orbit, because the government’s most valuable satellites operate there. 

What are the current space domain awareness capabilities of the Space Force?

The Space Force procures, operates, and maintains a range of different technologies to support its SDA mission objectives. Collectively, these are called the United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN). Specific technology programs with the SSN include:

Surveillance Satellites:

The Space Force currently operates seven satellites that collect space situational awareness data. The constellation is called Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), and the Department of Defense has invested in three new satellites for the program since early 2022. The most recent addition to the constellation is SilentBarker, a joint project of the Space Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which successfully launched into orbit in September 2023.

In late 2023, the Space Force announced a new ground-based SDA project called Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC). By partnering with the United Kingdom and Australia, the Department of Defense will create a network of three radar sites, an approach that will increase resiliency by allowing the military to monitor resident space objects (RSOs), even in inclement weather.


In addition to the radar sites, the Space Force also operates a network of ground-based telescopes under a program called Ground Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS). The telescopes are equipped with highly sensitive optical cameras and capture electronic snapshots of the night sky for computer processing. By comparing the trajectory of moving objects like satellites with fixed objects like stars, the system helps the Space Force track man-made objects in space.

What will space domain awareness capabilities look like in the future?

While many of the SDA technologies in use by the Space Force today were developed by the government, the Department of Defense (DoD) is actively seeking partnerships with private industry to accelerate technology adoption. 

Space Domain Awareness Companies

Here are some examples of space domain awareness companies partnering with the DoD to develop new SDA capabilities:

True Anomaly - Jackal Spacecraft

When it comes to space-based sensors, one of the Space Force’s biggest challenges is the maneuverability of existing satellites. Many SDA sensors are mounted on large satellites, designed to operate for decades on a limited fuel supply. As a result, these satellites aren’t completely free to move around, which means the sensors are limited in what they can see.

Aerospace startup True Anomaly aims to address this problem with their Jackal Spacecraft, a smaller form factor satellite designed for maneuverability. Among other rendezvous and proximity operations, the Jackal is designed to be flown very close to resident space objects, so that it can capture high resolution images and video. True Anomaly plans to demonstrate the Jackal in space by launching two units on board Transporter-10 (a SpaceX rideshare scheduled for March 2024).

Katalyst Space Technologies - In-Space Upgrades

Like True Anomaly, Katalyst Space Technologies is helping the DoD advance its in-space SDA capabilities – but with a totally different model. Katalyst Founder & CEO Ghonhee Lee recognized the problem with launching new satellites to obtain new capabilities in space: the design and development timeline for a new satellite can span years, even decades. Space is changing too quickly to wait 5-10 years for new capabilities to come online. 

That’s why Katalyst is helping the DoD and other partners upgrade existing satellites with new capabilities using in space servicing. Katalyst’s first upgrade, SIGHT, is a space domain awareness upgrade that adds sensors and processing power to satellites, even if those satellites weren’t originally designed to be upgraded. In a project funded by the DoD, Katalyst is partnering with Motiv Space Systems, an expert in robotic servicing, on a demo mission to upgrade several satellites on behalf of Space Force Delta 11.

Upgrades aren’t just an opportunity for the military – there are thousands of commercial satellites already in space that can be upgraded as well. The DoD is already purchasing SDA data for its unified data library, which means that commercial satellite operators that upgrade their satellites with SDA sensors have an opportunity to open new revenue streams by selling data to the government.

Katalyst Space Technologies - Applied AI and ML

Beyond just capturing SDA data, there’s also the matter of processing it to provide usable intelligence. While some data processing is automated – like elements of the GEODSS telescope program – much of it is still done manually by human analysts. As more sensors come online, human analysts could be overwhelmed by the volume of data coming in. This presents an excellent opportunity to leverage applied machine learning (ML). Katalyst’s ARC software processes SDA sensor data using machine learning, surfacing useful insights to human analysts faster than manual processing alone. This ensures that mission operators always have the intelligence they need to make informed decisions.

Automation of routine tasks presents another opportunity for space domain awareness software. For example, if an SDA sensor on a fixed satellite is tracking an object, and that object exits the sensor’s field of view, there needs to be a custody hand-off to a different sensor. Otherwise, you could lose track of the object. SDA software, like Katalyst’s ICON package, can automate custody hand-offs between different SDA sensors, creating a more effective surveillance network.

Katalyst offers SDA software ​​off the shelf that other systems can be plugged into.

ExoAnalytic and Slingshot Aerospace - SDA Analytics as a Service

There’s a third group of companies offering vertically integrated solutions to the military’s SDA needs. These companies operate their own telescope and/or sensor networks and also buy data from third parties. Then, they aggregate that data into analytics platforms, which provide object tracking and other insights.

This model is ideal for government programs that don’t have (or plan to have) their own sensors, telescopes, and/or data. Two examples of companies offering vertically integrated SDA as a service models are ExoAnalytic and Slingshot Aerospace.

Stay informed about space domain awareness technology and the Upgrade Economy

At Katalyst, we believe that businesses and governments shouldn’t have to choose between a billion dollar decision and doing nothing. Today, launching a new satellite into geosynchronous orbit is a billion dollar decision. We offer satellite operators an alternative route to obtaining new technology in space by upgrading existing satellites using in space servicing. Through upgrades, we will help the military close SDA coverage gaps fast. But we also believe that space domain awareness is just the tip of the spear and that upgrades will create many more technological opportunities in space going forward. We call this the Upgrade Economy. Subscribe below to stay informed about hardware upgrades, software upgrades, demo missions and more:

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