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US Military Discuss Improved Satellite Tracking With Commercial Groups

April 3, 2009

During the Space Foundation’s National Space Symposium, the US Air Force announced it would be working alongside US Strategic Command to develop a better system of tracking objects in space.

The Air Force said it hopes to improve satellite tracking to cover all 800 maneuverable spacecraft by October 8.

The push for better tracking comes in light of the recent collision between a defunct Russian and US satellite on February 10. US military and private tracking groups were unable to forecast the collision.

Space collisions have serious consequences for manned missions. During NASA’s recent Discovery shuttle mission to the International Space Station, crewmembers were forces to dodge space debris that was passing by at a distance that was too close for comfort on two occasions.

“We’ve seen significant progress and movement on the defense side to explore more exchange of data and more meaningful data with industry,” Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, vice president for global government services at communications firm Inmarsat, told Reuters.

Inmarsat is one of several private firms that provide tracking information to the US military.

Cowen-Hirsch said that Lieutenant General Larry James, commander of the Air Force’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, attended a meeting hosted by industry in Washington last week.

Commercial tracking services make up about 80 percent of the military’s communications, but protected communications, such as those designated for the president, are from military-operated satellites, General Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, said Thursday.

Officials are trying to create a network that combined efforts from commercial operators, foreign governments and the US government that still maintains security.

The Air Force has an Internet-based pilot program that allows commercial operators and foreign governments to report any issues with their spacecraft.

The trick, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told Reuters, was being able to assess rapidly what had happened, and then “straightforwardly differentiate between attack and anomaly.”

Yesterday, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced plans to begin a monitoring system for orbital space debris within the next few years.

“The goal is to be able to offer ‘precursor’ services in the next two or three years which among other things issue alerts about collision risks,”
Nicolas Bobrinsky of ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, told AFP

“We already have the installations and a knowledge base which we have to bring together and use,” he said.

The announcement was made during the 5th European Conference on Space Debris, which began on Monday and ended today in Darmstadt.

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