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USAF seeks space debris defense

May. 30, 2014 - 04:21PM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
Gen. William Shelton, head of US Air Force Space Command, warnes of the need to better track space objects.
Gen. William Shelton, head of US Air Force Space Command, warnes of the need to better track space objects. (Space Foundation photo)

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Last year’s National Space Symposium was all about survival — how industry and the US Air Force was going to make sure key programs made it through sequestration.

In a way, this year’s show was also about survival, but in a much more direct fashion. The focus for both industry and service officials has turned toward tracking and analyzing threats in space.

An emphasis on space situational awareness, also known as SSA, isn’t new. Gen. William Shelton, who will retire as head of Air Force Space Command in August, has consistently warned that space is more “competitive, congested and contested” than ever before, necessitating greater awareness of what is floating around the earth.

But this year, there was more open conversation about the need to track the hundreds of thousands of objects, most of which could rip a hole through a multimillion dollar satellite.

“Currently we track more than 23,000 objects in space,” Shelton said in his May 20 keynote address. “However, our sensors cannot see the estimated 500,000 pieces of debris between 1 and 10 centimeters in size. We’ve learned some lessons the hard way with orbital collisions and this increased traffic in space is causing collision-avoidance maneuvers at a pace we’ve never before experienced. After five decades of relatively benign operations, space is becoming an increasingly challenging place to operate.”

It’s not just debris that poses a threat to US hardware. Shelton highlighted the ways that foreign powers could target satellites in orbit, leaving a core capability of the American military offline.

“If we don’t come together as a world community to condemn this kind of weapon, we face the very real threat of making low earth orbit unusable for years,” Shelton warned.

The cornerstone of improving the Air Force’s space situational awareness is the Space Fence program. The Air Force is relying on Space Fence to “detect, track and measure an object the size of a softball orbiting more than 1,200 miles in space,” according to a service statement.

The contract for Space Fence had been expected to be awarded to either Lockheed Martin or Raytheon during the symposium, but indications are now that the award will come in the next two weeks.

While Space Fence may be important for the service, industry is looking for ways to augment the system — and cash in on concerns about clutter in space.

Boeing has its eyes on the next-generation of Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellites, which is expected to begin development in 2016.

“It’s a very high priority for Air Force Space Command,” said Craig Cooning, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for Space and Intelligence Systems. “If you listen to all the dialogue that is going on here, it tells you [that] you need space situational awareness. You need ground-based with Space Fence and you also need a space-based.”

Cooning believes Boeing’s 502 Phoenix, a smaller satellite bus, would be ideal for a new SBSS design.

“One of the things that has changed [since the last SBSS design] is we now have a small bus that we didn’t have before,” he said.

Competitor Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, believes a ground-based system known as Space Object Tracking (SPOT) could enhance SSA.

The SPOT program, located in Santa Cruz, California, takes three, 1-meter optical telescopes and sets them on rails similar to train tracks. By moving the telescopes around, Lockheed officials say, SPOT can capture numerous images of an item in the sky. Filtered through the company’s proprietary software, SPOT can assemble a clear image of items, as small as 50 centimeters, flying through geosynchronous orbit.

“One of the concepts is to have a global network of ground-based telescopes, something the intel community is conceiving of called the ‘next-gen surveillance network,’ ” said Ken Washington, vice president of Lockheed’s STAR Labs.

Gathering data is good, but it’s important to make it useable. The Pentagon’s Joint Space Operations Center, which acts as a clearing house for the military’s tracking of space-based objects, is a major step in that direction. But that’s just a domestic program, leaving increasingly important international partners out of the loop.

The world community took a step toward remedying that with the announcement of an agreement between the US, the UK, Australia and Canada to look for ways to share more space situational data.

It’s a small step, but an important one, said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.

“The significance is that there is the recognition that [the US] can’t go it alone,” Weeden said. “We are going to need closer cooperation with our closest allies — we, the US government — in order to accomplish our goals.”

The limited nature of the UK’s announcement “sounds like they haven’t been able to get an agreement on that, and this is more about each country having their own op center and having coordination between them,” he said. “It’s a signaling agreement among the four countries that this is important and provides a political framework for moving forward, and moving forward is going to be the even more difficult part of how do we actually do this.”

“The whole approach to SSA is to try and use every piece of information you can,” said Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlokowski, the head of Air Force Space and Missile Systems.

Space situational awareness also presents opportunities for the commercial sector. AGI spent the symposium showing off its new Commercial Space Operations Center. The system uses commercially and publicly available space tracking data and filters it through a software program.

It’s less powerful than what the military uses, capable of tracking basketball-sized objects in geosynchronous orbit. While it’s not as exquisite as the Pentagon systems, being a commercial firm comes with the benefit of working on a commercial timeline. It took the company two months from conception to operation.

In addition to commercial applications, AGI believes there is a market for international governments that cannot afford to use the higher-end technologies favored by the Air Force.

“We’ve been working on the software side with a number of friendly governments,” said Brendan Houlton, AGI’s lead deployment engineer for SSA. “This is just the natural extension allowing them not to have to invest in the sensors. So they can take their indigenous capabilities and contribute that to the [system] but we can manage the large architecture and the larger sensor network, and provide them instant SSA versus having to make major investments over the long term. So we think they will be very interested.” ■


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