Editorial: Improving Satellite Conjunction Alerts

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Despite having stepped up its effort in recent years to share orbital data with commercial satellite operators, the U.S. Air Force continues to frustrate companies that rely on the service for alerts of potential close approaches, or conjunctions, involving their satellites.

According to a study by Intelsat, the majority of conjunction alerts provided to the company in September 2011 by the Air Force-led Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) were false alarms. Moreover, potential conjunctions that should have been forecasted by the JSPOC were missed.

The JSPOC has access to the world’s most capable space surveillance assets, but does not always have the most up-to-date information on the location of commercial telecommunications satellites, which are regularly maneuvered. Some operators, who have current and very precise location data for their spacecraft, are willing to provide that information to the JSPOC. But the facility’s computers are unable to feed the operator-provided data into the automated system that produces conjunction alerts.

The Space Data Association (SDA), a cooperative among satellite operators, has met with U.S. Strategic Command to discuss the feasibility of providing, on an experimental basis, a service that would allow the JSPOC to process operator-provided data along with its own high-fidelity data to generate more reliable conjunction warnings. Strategic Command has yet to take the SDA up on the idea for reasons that are unclear.

While Strategic Command and JSPOC are to be commended for efforts to make better orbital data available to industry, especially in the wake of the 2009 in-orbit collision that destroyed an Iridium communications satellite — JSPOC now monitors all active satellites for possible conjunctions, for example — the Intelsat study strongly suggests that more needs to be done.

The long-term solution is the JSPOC Mission System, a planned overhaul of the center’s 1960s-era data processing infrastructure. The Pentagon and Congress need to make this a top priority, especially since the orbital congestion now manifesting itself is only going to get worse in the coming years. Unfortunately, the Air Force’s 2013 budget request for the program is nearly 50 percent lower than previously planned, which is not a good indicator. In any case, the foundational capabilities of the JSPOC Mission System won’t be available for several years.

In the near term, Strategic Command should put the SDA’s offer to provide an orbital-data processing service high on its action-item agenda. It might be challenging given Air Force security and other concerns, but determination and a willingness to think creatively often are the difference between progress and a less-attractive alternative.