AGI, Lockheed Tout Commercial Space Surveillance Systems

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WASHINGTON  — Two companies with key roles in improving the U.S. Air Force’s space surveillance system are setting up similar, privately owned capabilities to tap what they see as an emerging market to sell orbital data to government and commercial customers.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, working with Australia’s Electro Optic Systems, announced Aug. 25 it is planning a new space object-tracking site in western Australia and hopes to sell the data to the U.S. and Australian governments. In June, another Lockheed Martin division won a $914 million contract to build the Space Fence, the service’s next-generation space surveillance radar.

Lockheed Martin is not the first company looking to get into the commercial space surveillance game. Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI) of Exton, Pennsylvania, already is tracking thousands of space objects with its Commercial Space Operations Center, or ComSpOC for short, which relies on optical and radio tracking assets and the company’s own space surveillance software.  AGI has a key role in the Defense Department’s Joint Space Operations Center Joint Mission System, an upgrade to the aging system that provides critical support to U.S. military and other space operations. The ComSpOC incorporates some of the same technology.

In a press release, Lockheed Martin said its system will “paint a more detailed picture of space debris” using lasers and sensitive optical systems.

“Ground-based space situational awareness is a growing priority for government and commercial organizations around the world that need to protect their investments in space,” Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in the release. “Through this agreement with Electro Optic Systems, we’ll offer customers a clearer picture of the objects that could endanger their satellites, and do so with great precision and cost-effectiveness.”

Lockheed Martin officials stressed the new system would complement the capabilities provided by the Space Fence, a state-of-the-art tracking radar that will be located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator. A possible second Space Fence site is planned for western Australia.

Lockheed Martin officials had said for months they were considering opportunities for international space situational awareness business.

Matt Kramer, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said the optical tracking site in western Australia will be able to zoom in on specific pieces of debris and determine their content, spin-direction and orbital speed.  The data will be used to determine how much of a threat a given piece of debris poses to operating satellites.

Kramer declined to say how much Lockheed Martin is investing in the project.

Electro Optic Systems currently provides space situational awareness data to the Australian government, but the new facility would increase the scope and capacity of the data it provides, the release said.

Lockheed Martin’s announcement comes about six months after AGI unveiled its service.

AGI’s ComSpOC service would provide data for space collision avoidance, maneuver detection and debris modeling.  The company hopes to announce its first customers before the end of the year, said Frank Linsalata, the company’s chief operating officer.

AGI has stressed that its model uses exclusively commercial software and sensors.

Currently, the ComSpOC has 20 optical sensors and three radio frequency sensors in operation.

ExoAnalytic Solutions of Mission Viejo, California, and the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network of Goleta, California, are providing optical sensors. Rincon Research Corp. of Tucson, Arizona, provides data from radio frequency radar.

Most of the AGI network’s 22 sensors are in the United States, with one each in France, Spain and Australia. New sensors are coming into the network weekly, Linsalata said.

According to a new fact sheet, AGI is already tracking 73 percent of all geosynchronous satellites in orbit and 100 percent of those covering the continental United States.

The company is building a catalog of space objects that it calls the SpaceBook.

Linsalata said AGI’s system provides faster processing times, greater accuracy and fewer false positives for conjunctions — close passes between orbital objects — than the data currently made available by the Defense Department. The subscription service includes detailed space object characterization, real-time alerts and 3-D visualization tools.