Cover: Satellite Anomalies

Satellite Anomalies

Benefits of a Centralized Anomaly Database and Methods for Securely Sharing Information Among Satellite Operators

Published Jun 2, 2014

by David A. Galvan, Brett Hemenway, William Welser IV, Dave Baiocchi


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Research Questions

  1. What are satellite anomalies, and how do they affect the functionality of spacecraft?
  2. What phenomena cause them?
  3. How can cataloguing these anomalies in a centralized database aid satellite designers and operators?
  4. What anomaly databases currently exist, and how could such databases be changed to optimize utility for anomaly investigators?
  5. What type of information would the ideal centralized satellite anomaly database contain?
  6. What are the obstacles preventing a useful anomaly database from being developed?
  7. How could such information be shared securely in the interest of protecting proprietary information from exposure?

Satellite anomalies are mission-degrading events that negatively affect on-orbit operational spacecraft. All satellites experience anomalies of some kind during their operational lifetime. They range in severity from temporary errors in noncritical subsystems to loss-of-contact and complete mission failure. There is a range of causes for these anomalies, and investigations by the satellite operator or manufacturer to determine the cause of a specific anomaly are sometimes conducted at significant expense.

Maintaining an anomaly database is one way to build an empirical understanding of what situations are more or less likely to result in satellite anomalies, and help determine causal relationships. These databases can inform future design and orbital regimes, and can help determine measures to prolong the useful life of an on-orbit spacecraft experiencing problems. However, there is no centralized, up-to-date, detailed, and broadly available database of anomalies covering many different satellites.

This report describes the nature and causes of satellite anomalies, and the potential benefits of a shared and centralized satellite anomaly database. Findings indicate that a shared satellite anomaly database would bring significant benefits to the commercial community, and the main obstacles are reluctance to share detailed information with the broader community, as well as a lack of dedicated resources available to any trusted third party to build and manage such a database. Trusted third parties and cryptographic methods such as secure multiparty computing or differential privacy are not complete solutions, but show potential to be further tailored to help resolve the issue of securely sharing anomaly data.

Key Findings

A Centralized Database Poses Great Advantages

  • A centralized and standardized satellite anomaly database would aid in anomaly investigations, reducing costs and increasing efficiency. It could also contribute to the scientific understanding of real-world impacts of the near-Earth space environment.
  • A single centralized database could offer advantages over multiple smaller ones, which tend to be either broadly available but incomplete, or highly detailed but not broadly available.
  • Automated "satellite as a sensor" methods for identifying and cataloguing anomalies may also reduce the workload of those investigating satellite anomalies.

There Are Real Obstacles to Creating a Centralized Database

  • Commercial satellite owners are reluctant to share detailed anomaly information with the broader community, citing potential decreases in consumer confidence as well as exposure of proprietary information.
  • While it might be possible for a government agency or third party to build and manage such a centralized and secure database, there is a lack of dedicated resources available to support such a service.

There Are Solutions

  • Management of a centralized database by a trusted third party, encryption techniques such as secure multiparty computing, and differential privacy may help overcome inhibitions of commercial satellite operators to share anomaly information, thus contributing to greater benefit throughout the satellite operator community.
  • Candidate organizations that could serve as a trusted third party include federal agencies and federally funded research and development centers. Satellite insurance companies could also play this role, as they have an interest in maintaining data and in keeping it secret for clients.


  • Additional research into applying the methods discussed to satellite anomaly identification and secure sharing could enable enhanced and efficient anomaly diagnosis by the broader satellite operator community.
  • The commercial satellite operator community must be convinced that the sharing mechanism meets their privacy standards and that the benefit of sharing is worth the effort and perceived risk.
  • Another positive step would be allotment of resources to government agencies or third-party entities that would be trusted to serve as stewards of the database.
  • There is a need for innovative business plans that could enable stewards of existing private databases (such as insurance companies) to facilitate sharing of anomaly information via incentives for clients willing to participate, or aggregated publication of anomaly data that does not reveal identify.

This research was sponsored by DARPA and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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