U.S. Strategic Command is interested in fielding operational satellites in the near future that would rendezvous with other spacecraft in low Earth orbit for surveillance purposes, according to the command’s top official.

The satellites would build upon the experience and knowledge gained from experimental on-orbit rendezvous craft like the XSS-11, which was launched last year, according to U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, commander of Strategic Command.

The military could use these satellites to check out a U.S. spacecraft in low Earth orbit to understand why it might be experiencing problems, Cartwright said in a brief interview here April 11.

The XSS-11 was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver for the Air Force Research Laboratory. It was launched in April 2005 aboard a Minotaur rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., with the intent of demonstrating on-orbit diagnostic capabilities.

The satellite, weighing about 140 kilograms and roughly the size of a household dishwasher, flew around the Minotaur’s spent upper stage more than 75 times, and is expected to rendezvous with other U.S.-owned objects in space over the course of its 18-month mission, according to an Air Force Research Laboratory fact sheet posted online.

The XSS-11 mission is a follow-on to the XSS-10 experiment, which was assembled by the Air Force Research Laboratory with hardware supplied by Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis. The XSS-10 featured less sophisticated autonomous operations capability than XSS-11, and was designed to operate for only 24 hours.

Joan Underwood, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin, did not return a phone call by press time seeking comment on the company’s possible interest in building operational on-orbit rendezvous and surveillance craft.

Robert Villanueva, a Boeing spokesman, said in a written statement that Boeing hopes to be considered for an operational rendezvous spacecraft. In addition to the work on XSS-10, Boeing’s development of the Orbital Express satellite demonstration for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency could help the company develop operational satellites for the military relatively quickly, Villanueva said.

The Orbital Express spacecraft is expected to launch this fall and demonstrate the ability of a satellite to autonomously approach and service other satellites.

The XSS-10 and XSS-11 missions were somewhat controversial because on-orbit rendezvous demonstrations are viewed in some circles as thinly veiled precursors to anti-satellite missions.

Any Pentagon purchase of operational autonomous rendezvous satellites would raise similar concerns, according to Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here.

“It would raise questions here and outside the U.S.,” Hitchens said.

Hitchens and other opponents of space weapons note that a spacecraft capable of approaching another satellite could easily strike it with the intent to damage or destroy.

These critics have cited as evidence a research paper dubbed “Military Microsatellites: Matching Requirements and Technology,” which was based on a study conducted in 1999 by the not-for-profit research firm Analytic Services Inc., or ANSER, on behalf of Air Force Space Command.

The paper, published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and distributed at the organization’s Space 2000 Conference & Exposition in Long Beach, Calif., prominently recommended “the deployment, as rapidly as possible, of XSS-10-based satellites able to intercept, image and if needed, take action against a target satellite.”

A link to the paper is posted on the Web site armscontrolwonk.com.

In an interview shortly after the launch of the XSS-11 spacecraft, Vernon Baker, program manager for the experiment at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said that the demonstration would demonstrate technology that could be applied to monitoring the orbital environment. However, Baker said that the experiment is “absolutely not” intended to lay the groundwork for space weapons.

Comments: jsinger@space.com