US Stratcom Uneasy About Debris Threat from SmallSats
[Via Satellite 02-09-2015] The United States Strategic Command (Stratcom) wants better tracking for small satellites as the number of them in orbit continues to skyrocket. Speaking Feb. 6 at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of Stratcom, said the growing quantity of small satellites is making space more congested at a pace much faster than before.
“According to a space debris expert at the University of South Hampton, CubeSats have been involved in more than 360,000 close approaches of less than three miles with other orbiting objects,” said Haney. “Consider for a moment the devastating effects of just one collision, and what it could have on our financial and economic sectors, and our ability to conduct military applications.”
Stratcom’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space) identifies and subsequently tracks satellites and space debris through the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Haney said the number of objects tracked that are the size of a softball or larger has now surpassed 17,000. Approximately 1,200 of the objects tracked are satellites. But while the overwhelming majority of tracked objects are debris, the number of small spacecraft picked up by JSpOC is on the rise.
“Complicating this already crowded environment, we’re seeing an increase in the number of small satellites and, while they are valuable low-cost research platforms, the potential for damage to the world’s satellite constellations increases as their debris grow,” said Haney. “Just last year for example, out of the 229 payloads launched into orbit, 158 of them were nano and microsat technology.”
Haney added that in 2014 Stratcom logged an average of 23 collision-warning notifications per day. By the end of the year, JSpOC logged 121 collision avoidance maneuvers, including three with the more than $100 billion International Space Station (ISS). CubeSats and other small spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) often forego propulsion systems, making mobility options limited.
Stratcom is bolstering its LEO tracking abilities through the space fence, an S-band ground-based radar system under development by Lockheed Martin, to replace the 1960s Air Force Space Surveillance System. Initial operational capability is anticipated by fiscal year 2019. The improved system will be able to track objects as small as 10 centimeters, and support cued searches in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and above.
In July 2014 the Air Force launched two satellites for the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), which observe objects in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). The identical satellites, orbited by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 rocket, can also conduct Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) with objects of interest for closer observation.
Furthermore, Stratcom has two more increments planned for the JSpOC Mission System (JMS), which will be able to fuse all the data together from multiple sources, to provide command and control in a near-real time environment. Haney said the first phase is to replace legacy equipment and software, followed by adding a battle management command and control system for improved Space Situational Awareness (SSA). He added that increment one is in place, that Stratcom is working toward increment two, and that increment three is in the planning process.
“We have to have methodologies, procedures, collaboration and transparency in order to prevent more debris from being created in space,” said Haney. “The number [of satellites] is continuing to grow, and the rate of change there is in fact, disturbing. So it’s more about the management of all this so we can reduce the potential for collisions, while at the same time being able to work to innovate as we need to.”
Haney highlighted collaboration between industry and nations to share information as a way to avoid the proliferation of more space junk in light of the potential of upcoming numerous LEO SmallSat constellations, such as SpaceX’s 4,000 satellites and OneWeb’s 648 to exacerbate the debris issue. Stratcom has agreements with 46 commercial satellite entities in 16 countries, as well as agreements with eight different nations on sharing information. Germany was the latest addition, signing a memorandum of understanding last month. In 2014 Stratcom also signed an agreement with the Space Data Association, adding the first non-satellite operator entity to the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) SSA data sharing program.