BOSTON — With satellites playing an increasingly valuable role in U.S. military operations, troops need to be able to keep tabs on space assets with the same vigilance they track other systems deployed around the battlefield , according to the U.S. Air Force’s top uniformed space officer.

Such knowledge is critical to finding the cause of any malfunction that occurs on a U.S. satellite , and determining whether th e problem was caused by an enemy attack, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters during a Sept. 26 briefing at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference 2006 in Washington.

Chilton said that he is “not satisfied” with the current quality of what the Air Force calls space situational awareness information. Such information on the status of space assets and any potential threats they face is one of the key products needed by U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, which serves as the Pentagon’s primary nerve center for space operations.

Chilton declined to comment specifically on any connection between China’s recent aiming of lasers at a U.S. satellite and the Air Force’s need to ramp up its work in the area of space situational awareness. However, potential adversaries now have both the technology and capability to strike U.S. assets, he said.

If a military satellite experiences problems, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright wants a prompt explanation from Maj. Gen. William Shelton, the commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, Chilton said.

“I provide [Shelton] what he needs,” Chilton said. “And I don’t want him to say, ‘well, you know, if only Space Command had given me this, I could answer that question for you, boss, but I can’t.’”

Chilton has worked to address this issue since taking over the top job at the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Space Command in June. This included convening a team of officials to assess the capabilities of current space surveillance systems and examine the potential value of new investments in this area.

Chilton believes that some of the technology that could play a key role in improving the military’s space situational awareness capability could come from work under way at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA has a variety of programs in its portfolio that address the issue of space situational awareness, including experimental ground- and space-based sensors.

Jan Walker, a DARPA spokeswoman, said program officials declined to be interviewed about the agency’s space surveillance work.

On the optical side, DARPA’s programs include the Space Surveillance Telescope, which is intended to yield a ground-based sensor capable of searching space for faint objects that could threaten a satellite, including asteroids, according to a Pentagon document posted on DARPA’s Web site. DARPA plans to transition the program to the Air Force by 2009. The 2007 budget for the Space Surveillance Telescope is roughly $9.7 million.

DARPA’s ground-based space surveillance programs also include the Deep View radar effort. The Deep View program is intended to use W-band radar to image and determine the nature of small objects “such as space debris,” and monitor the health and status of “operational satellites,” according to the Pentagon document, which does not say whether Deep View is intended to examine U.S. satellites only or those of other nations as well.

Key challenges involved with Deep View include developing transmitters capable of providing the power necessary to take detailed pictures of small objects at great distances, according to the document. The current budget for Deep View is about $10.2 million.

DARPA’s efforts to develop satellite systems that help the military keep tabs on objects in space include the Rapid On-Orbit Surveillance and Tracking System (ROAST). Key challenges for the ROAST program include the development of hardware like optics and processors that are capable for the space surveillance mission while fitting into a light, tight package that can launch aboard small rockets with quick call-up time to support urgent military needs, according to the Pentagon document.

DARPA did not request funding for ROAST in 2007; the program had a budget of $2 million in 2006.

The Microsatellite Demonstration Science and Technology Experiment also is intended to yield technology that can be incorporated on small satellites to keep an eye on the space environment. The effort is intended to take a variety of technologies that are currently not space qualified, and test them aboard various experimental microsatellites, according to the Pentagon document. The 2007 budget for the Microsatellite Demonstration Science and Technology Experiment is about $8 million.

Technology examined under the Microsatellite Demonstration Science and Technology Experiment may include lightweight sensors and power generation equipment, as well as components for autonomous operations, according to the document.

However, improved sensors are only one part of better space situational awareness, Chilton said. The Air Force also needs to find better ways to fuse data from various sensors and display it on screens in a more coherent manner for officials like Shelton, as well as forward deployed commanders, he said.

Chilton noted that the Combined Air Operations Centers in places like Qatar and South Korea have large screens that display what is happening in their areas of interest.

“We don’t have that for space today,” Chilton said. “We bring in all kinds of bits and pieces of data and we ask people to fuse it in their heads.”