Air Force: US decades behind on satellite protection

Can satellites really be protected from flying space junk?

DMSP satellite
Too little is known about what potential foes have placed into space and how much space debris is threatening to damage American orbiters. And the US needs to deploy more space sensors, satellites and satellite protection and quickly: "We are decades behind where we should be, in my view." 

That was the conclusion of the chief of US Strategic Command Gen. Kevin Chilton in a speech this week and whose mission is to protect all military things in space and cyberspace. 

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The need for better satellite protection is obvious but sounds a bit like herding cats. For example, the intentional destruction of the Chinese Fengyun-1C weather satellite in January of 2007 and the accidental collision of American and Russian spacecraft in February of this year have increased the cataloged debris population by nearly 40%, in comparison with all the debris remaining from the first 50 years of the Space Age, experts say. 

In April, NASA's Nicholas Johnson, Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris at the Johnson Space Center told a congressional hearing that  the United States Space Surveillance Network, managed by U.S. Strategic Command, is tracking more than 19,000 objects in orbit about the Earth, of which approximately 95 percent represent some form of debris. However, these are only the larger pieces of space debris, typically four inches or more in diameter. The number of debris as small as half an inch exceeds 300,000. Due to the tremendous energies possessed by space debris, the collision between a piece of debris only a half-inch in diameter and an operational spacecraft, piloted by humans or robotic, has the potential for catastrophic consequences, he stated. 

However, these are only the larger pieces of space debris, typically four inches or more in diameter. The number of debris as small as half an inch exceeds 300,000. Due to the tremendous energies possessed by space debris, the collision between a piece of debris only a half-inch in diameter and an operational spacecraft, piloted by humans or robotic, has the potential for catastrophic consequences, he stated. 

So what can be done? Gen. Chilton singled out a couple more important efforts that Layer 8 has written about in the past: 

The Space Fence: Northrop Grumman this year got $30 million from the US Air Force to start developing the first phase of a global space surveillance ground radar system.  The new S-Band Space Fence is part of the Department of Defense's effort to track and detect what are known as  resident space objects (RSO), consisting of thousands of pieces of space debris as well as commercial and military satellites. The new Space Fence will replace the current VHF Air Force Space Surveillance System built in 1961. The Space Fence will provide continuous space situational awareness by detecting smaller objects in low and medium earth orbit. The current system requires constant sustainment intervention to maintain operations and does not address the growing population of small and micro satellites in orbit, Northrop stated. 

"Space situational awareness is no different than the situational awareness that we demand in any other domain," Chilton stated. "And we do not provide that in an adequate fashion to my component commander in charge of space operations for the United States of America." 

Space sensors: Last year the Air Force laid out $29 million to begin to build  space-based sensors that could detect threats or hazards and protect satellites in orbit. Assurance Technologies and Lockheed Martin Space Systems split $20 million of the two-year contract that the Air force says should ultimately bring a viable sensing capability, as well as integration with other space systems to offer space threat and hazard detection, assessment and notification. Known as the Self-Awareness Space Situations Awareness, SASSA will develop and demonstrate a hardware/software architecture using a suite of threat warning instruments located on a space vehicle that can report hazards or threat indicators to ground operators. The Air Force plans to launch the demonstration payload at the end of 2010. 

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Chilton noted that the US has been using missile warning sensors for a very long time in the space business to keep track of objects in space. "As we put up sensors for missile defense, a system we hope we never will have to use, a system we hope that will deter adversaries from attacking us with either short, medium, or long range ballistic missiles, we ought to write into the requirements and field capabilities to support space situational awareness development and space surveillance," he stated. 

He also said he'd like to see a system that can ingest data from the myriad radars, telescopes,  infrared sensors, contractors, commercial entities and allies who are flying satellites.  "There are folks out there today flying satellites who are friends of ours in the commercial world who know exactly where those satellites are. Wouldn't it be nice if we could set up relationships so that we could share that information...so we don't waste radar energy and waste our assets keeping track of something that we already know where it is. In fact we ought to use those as a calibration source to calibrate our sensors," he stated. 

There are other developments in the works. DARPA has spent over $38 million for the initial development of its advanced space technology program that ultimately aims to replace traditional "monolithic" spacecraft with clusters of wirelessly-interconnected spacecraft modules. Among its primary objectives includes the ability to resist or survive a variety of natural and manmade threats like anti-satellite weapons. 

The program, called the Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange also known as the System F6, is intended to let the agency deploy individual pieces or what it calls "fractionated modules" of current all-in-one satellites. For example, each fractionated module would support a unique capability, such as command and control, data handling, guidance and navigation, payload. Modules could replicate the functions of other modules as well. Such modules can be physically connected once in orbit or remain nearby to each other in a loose formation, or cluster, harnessed together through a wireless network they create a virtual satellite. 

DARPA's Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) program will enhance space situational awareness by demonstrating rapid, unsecured search, detection, and tracking of faint, deep-space objects. SST is using curved focal plane array technology to develop a large-aperture optical telescope with very wide field of view to detect and track new and unidentified objects that suddenly appear with unknown purpose or intent, such as small, potentially hazardous debris objects and future generations of small satellites. 

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