More satellite collision warnings to come with Space Fence data

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MAUI, Hawaii – A senior Pentagon official said the U.S. Air Force will need to rethink how it issues satellite collision warnings when a new space object tracking system goes online or risk overwhelming satellite operators and hardware systems with overly cautious alerts.

In 2018, the Air Force’s next-generation space object tracking system, known as the Space Fence, will go online and detect satellites and space debris 5 centimeters and larger. Defense Department officials said they are optimistic that on the best days, the $900 million Space Fence, built by Lockheed Martin on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, may be able to track objects as small as 1 centimeter. That’s a marked improvement over the Defense Department’s current network of radars and sensors, which tracks objects 10 centimeters and larger.

But that additional precision means the Air Force will have tracking data for 200,000 objects, up from the approximately 20,000 objects it tracks today.

With the advanced accuracy, Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said the new data could lead to an orders of magnitude increase in collision warnings. While the information would provide operators a better understanding of their surroundings on orbit, it could ultimately lead to an overwhelming number of false alarms.

“That is a management nightmare,” Loverro said during a keynote address Sept. 21 at the AMOS conference here. “If we don’t change something, we will not be able to handle it.”

Such a scenario could cause unnecessary maneuvers, waste fuel, or worse, create a boy-who-cried-wolf attitude among satellite operators, particularly those who are new to the space industry.

Today, the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base issues potential collision warnings to operators when objects could come within five kilometers of active satellites. But the number of warnings is expected to increase significantly once the Space Fence is online and mega-constellations, including those from OneWeb and SpaceX, are on orbit.

“We’re going to be getting a lot more data from Space Fence, tracking a lot more objects and there are going to be a lot more potential conjunctions,” Lt. Col. Scott Putnam, commander of the newly stood-up 18th Space Control Squadron, which maintains the U.S. Strategic Command’s space object catalog, said during a presentation here. To prepare for that scenario, Putnam said the Air Force is trying to provide “more actionable” notifications and recently started providing operators with the probability of a collision.

During the first three months of 2016, Putnam said the 18th Space Control Squadron issued about 10,000 messages to  warn operators that they met reporting criteria for potential collisions. However, only about 500 of those incidents, he said, had a greater than 1 in 100,000 chance of leading to a collision.

In an effort to minimize some of these warnings, Loverro said the increased accuracy of space situational awareness data may allow the Air Force  to shrink the distance for warnings from five kilometers to potentially hundreds of meters or less. Greater information on the size of each object, including satellites, could also help, Putnam said. Meanwhile to help further alleviate problem, Loverro said the Defense Department is looking to industry and the national security space community for advanced algorithms to more accurately track where objects are headed and to predict which objects face the highest probability of collision.