November 4, 2009

US Military Now Tracking 800 Satellites

On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that it is tracking 800 maneuverable satellites on a daily basis for possible collisions, and it expects to add 500 more non-maneuvering satellites by year's end.

After a dead Russian military communications satellite and a commercial U.S. satellite collided on February 10th, the U.S. Air Force began upgrading its ability to predict possible collisions in space.

General Kevin Chilton, a commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said the collision was a "seminal event" in the satellite industry.  He said it destroyed any sense that space was so vast that collisions were highly improbable.

Chilton said that military officials had wanted to do more thorough analysis of possible collisions in space, but they lacked the resources.  He said that before the collision, they were tracking less than 100 satellites per day.

"It's amazing what one collision will do to the resource spigot," he told a space conference in Omaha, Nebraska.

The crash underscored the vulnerability of U.S. satellites, which are used for a huge array of military and civilian purposes.

According to Chilton, the Air Force was tracking over 20,000 satellites, spent rocket stages and other objects in space.

He said that was just what the U.S. could "see" and there were estimates that the actual number was much greater, posing a potential threat to satellites on orbit.

Air Force Lieutenant General Larry James told reporters the Air Force met its goal for tracking possible collisions among 800 satellites that have the ability to be moved in September, ahead of an October target date.

"Our goal now is to do that conjunction assessment for all active satellites ... roughly around 1,300 satellites ... by the end of the year and provide that information to users as required," James told reporters on a teleconference during a space conference in Omaha, Nebraska.

Some of the 500 satellites that can be assessed cannot be moved because they do not carry extra fuel that would be needed to move them once in orbit.

The Air Force has been buying more computers and hiring analysts to increase its ability to predict possible collisions.  It also works with commercial satellite operators to share data collected by their spacecraft and the U.S. government sources.

Chilton lauded the efforts, but said the work was still too reliant on Air Force analysts and needed further improvement. "We are decades behind where we should be," he said.

Victoria Samson, who works with the nonprofit Center for Defense Information, said the Air Force needed more trained operators to do the analyses and the goal of adding 500 more satellites to the analysis might be "somewhat optimistic."

Image Courtesy NASA


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