Shelton Discloses Previously Classified Surveillance Satellite Effort

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is expected to launch two high-orbiting satellites for a previously classified space surveillance system late in 2014, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said Feb. 21.

Shelton disclosed the existence of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness system (GEO SSA) for the first time at the Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

According to an Air Force fact sheet, the two-satellite system will operate in a “near-geosynchrous orbit regime” to provide accurate tracking and characterization of man-made orbiting objects. Satellites with missions including communications and missile warning operate in the geosynchronous-orbit belt roughly 36,000 kilometers above the equator.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. is the GEO SSA program’s general contractor. Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski referred questions about the program to the Air Force.

Shelton has repeatedly stressed the importance of space surveillance as the orbital environment becomes more congested and potential threats grow. He has also said one of his top priorities is to launch a follow-on to the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which keeps tabs on the geosynchronous belt.

The GEO SSA system “will have a clear, unobstructed and distinct vantage point for viewing resident space objects orbiting Earth in a near-geosynchronous orbit without the disruption of weather or atmosphere that can limit ground-based systems,” the fact sheet said.

Data from the system will enable “space flight safety to include satellite collision avoidance,” the fact sheet said.

Operators at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. will oversee the command and control of the satellite.

According to a  manifest maintained by NASA, it appears the system would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket in the fourth quarter of 2014. Shelton said two satellites would launch this year and two replacement satellites would launch in 2016.

“The system will also have the ability to do relatively close-up inspections and analysis of other people’s satellites” in geostationary orbit, said Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability. “They are exactly the kind of systems the U.S. military has expressed significant concerns about other countries or commercial companies deploying,” he said.