What’s going on up there?
by Taylor Dinerman
|It may be easier to provide power to a radar in Massachusetts than in low Earth orbit, but if one wants to examine an object carefully, nothing beats proximity.|
The current groundbased system, which uses both sophisticated telescope arrays based in New Mexico, Maui, and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as a radar array, might have been adequate during the Cold War when, aside from the US and the Soviets, there were relatively few other states that could launch satellites and those were all pretty big birds. All the current US groundbased systems are being upgraded, with the radars receiving a half-billion-dollar makeover. There is also an innovative program to integrate data from a number of “nontraditional” sources in order to provide a more robust picture than could be derived from just optical and radar imagery.
For years it has been evident that Earth-based systems are limited by the atmosphere and by the laws of physics. It may be easier to provide power to a radar in Massachusetts than in low Earth orbit, but if one wants to examine an object carefully, nothing beats proximity. Both the Orbital Express and the XSS-11 programs have proved that autonomous proximity operations are well within the state of the art. Of course, this technology can also be used to develop co-orbital ASATs, both kinetic and non-kinetic, but that’s a policy decision. The ability to inspect a satellite of interest close-up may be useful now and in the near future. As this technology develops it is to be expected that efforts will be made on all sides to disguise and camouflage military spacecraft.
The Defense Department plans to launch the first of a series of Space-Based Space Surveillance System (SBSS) satellites late next year. This one is more of a technology demonstrator than an actual operational craft. Eventually the Air Force hopes to have a constellation of four improved versions of the SBSS in orbit by 2013. By then the need for enhanced real-time information on a wide variety of activities in the Earth-Moon system will have grown prodigiously. The SBSS will be hard-pressed to keep up with all the operational satellites, let alone with the space debris and inactive satellites.
Meanwhile, on a separate track, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) will in late November or December launch a pair of Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) satellites on a Delta 2. These are the precursors of what the MDA hopes will be a network of 30 advanced STSS which “…will be able to simultaneously detect and track more than 100 objects in real time, and will differentiate missiles and warheads from decoys, debris, clutter and noise.” These will have a pair of sensors, one with a wide-field view and the other with a narrow one for tracking purposes.
|Just as the US Navy is willing to spend large sums of money on oceanographic research, the USAF should not hesitate to spend some of its own funds to leverage work being done by NASA and NOAA to understand space weather phenomena.|
Both the STSS and the SBSS programs will provide the US with limited but much needed space situational awareness sometime around 2013–2014. Yet this awareness will be limited to man-made objects. Over the last decade or more the US has begun to build its knowledge of the natural environment inside cislunar space. Programs such as NASA’s Living With a Star are giving us an ever more accurate understanding of space weather. Sadly, the funding for these programs is as capricious as that of most space programs. A couple of years ago the NOAA Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colorado, was almost closed due to what can only be called an act of gross negligence.
Just as the US Navy is willing to spend large sums of money on oceanographic research, the USAF should not hesitate to spend some of its own funds to leverage work being done by NASA and NOAA to understand space weather phenomena. Just as there are ways, under certain conditions, to exploit the dense electromagnetic environment inside Earth’s atmosphere to detect stealth aircraft, there should be ways to use the electromagnetic environment of the Earth-Moon system to detect man-made objects. Only a thorough understanding of the radiation belts, and their relationship with the Sun, can give the Air Force the scientific basis with which to develop such technology.
Integrating all this information from NASA, NOAA, MDA, and Air Force Space Command into a single picture of all activity inside cislunar space should be the goal of any future US military space vision. Just as the problems with the so-called “intelligence stovepipes” were held partly responsible for the intelligence failures before the 9/11 attacks, the space awareness stovepipes that exist today could open the way for a future surprise attack on US space assets.