The Forgotten No. 1 Purpose of Effective Space Domain Awareness

Space Domain Awareness (SDA) is all about understanding what is happening to and in space, right? Wrong.

The Forgotten No. 1 Purpose of Effective Space Domain Awareness
'Seeing the Forest Through the Tree' [Credit: Jill Reger]

Space Domain Awareness (SDA) is all about understanding what is happening to and in space, right?


The fundamental purpose of SDA is to provide knowledge necessary for high-quality and timely decision-making. A common problem SDA experts face is focusing on the trees despite the forest - producing knowledge.

SDA is a ravenous beast and you'll need to collect (lots of) raw data, process information, and ingest knowledge necessary to make those decisions.

In the moment it's easy to forget a fundamental fact about decision-making: Knowledge that doesn't affect decision-making is only slowing the decision-making loop. How can we keep from forgetting this basic fact and producing the right knowledge?

Let's dig in.

The Forest and the Trees

We all focus on a part of SDA - it's such a big field that none of us (none!) can be experts in everything.

Physics, astronomy, sensors, software, astronautics, human factors, tactics, operations, and strategy are some of the trees in the SDA forest. At most, we have a few trees or region of the 'forest' we are experts in. It's human nature and a cognitive fact that once we learn frameworks for our domains of expertise we use those frameworks to try and understand other domains.

It's easy to get focused on your tree and forget there is a whole forest out there.

I can't resist a good Dwight Schrute meme. This one is on-point. [Credit: Make a Meme]

Broaden your thinking and remember that the purpose of SDA is not to focus on your domain of expertise. Your role in this team sport is collecting, processing, and producing relevant knowledge and getting it in decision-maker's headspace. That's it.

Keep that in mind at all times.

Fuel for the Decision-Making Machine

The purpose of SDA is decision-making.

If more information won't affect your decision and you care about making timely choices, should you keep collecting? No, and it's that simple. Collecting, processing, and loading knowledge into head-space that doesn't change decisions slows down the decision-making.

Don't harvest the whole forest if all you need is lumber to make a table.

[Credit: BMUV]

But wait, we don't always know what we need in advance, right?

Refocusing Your Efforts

The solution to this problem is having two production lines in your SDA knowledge factory. We can categorize most of our decisions into two buckets:

  • Decisions we know we need to make
  • Decisions we don't know we need to make

For decisions we know we need to make, parsimony is queen and timeliness is her focus. Collect, process, and produce knowledge that affects that decision. Nothing more, nothing less - keep the decision-loop as timely and tight as possible without sacrificing decision quality.

Supporting decisions we don't yet know we need to make is more tricky and more prosaic.

If you don't know in advance what decision you'll need to make, how can you tighten the decision-loop?

Simple - you collect the information in advance. This is the whole purpose of maintaining space object catalogs and characterizing space objects. Because we find ourselves in this situation most often it's easy to think that successful SDA revolves around having as much knowledge about the space domain as possible. Then we already have actionable knowledge when something happens and the decision-making need becomes clear.

Because the purpose of SDA is to make decisions, we often forget to focus on producing knowledge necessary for plausible or likely decision-making.

If your knowledge production capabilities are large you can afford to reduce the threshold for 'likely' decisions.

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