BOSTON — The U.S. Air Force likely will delay by several months the launch of a satellite designed to monitor and track other space objects unless Congress allocates more funding for the program than the service requested in 2008, Air Force documents show.

The Air Force’s “[Fiscal Year] 2008 Unfunded Priority List,” submitted to Congress earlier in February and distributed to reporters by Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, listed keeping the first Space Based Space Surveillance System (SBSS) satellite on schedule as its No. 24 priority.

Hunter sent a Jan. 17 letter to all U.S. armed services chiefs asking for a list of their unfunded priorities. Such lists typically include programs where the funding requested for the upcoming fiscal year is not sufficient to meet specified schedules and other goals.

The Air Force’s 2008 list and an accompanying document say $35 million in addition to the service’s $157.5 million request for SBSS is needed to maintain an 80 percent likelihood that the first satellite launches in December 2008 as planned. Without the added money, the satellite likely will not be ready until April 2009, according to the document.

The first SBSS satellite, called Block 10, is intended to replace the Space Based Visible sensor on the Midcourse Space Experiment, which complements the Air Force’s network of ground-based sensors for tracking space objects. The Midcourse Space Experiment, launched in 1996, is expected to continue operating “for another year or two at best,” the document states.

The Air Force did not request sufficient funds to keep SBSS on track due to other priorities, according to the document.

“The Air Force carefully balanced the [2008] budget [request] across modernization, infrastructure, personnel and readiness accounts,” the document states. “The impact of increasing personnel costs, an aging fleet and 16 years of combat have put pressure on the Air Force’s limited funding, and significant requirements remain unfunded.”

In a written response to questions provided by Air Force spokesman Joe Davidson, the service said the April 2009 launch date for SBSS Block 10 reflects direction from the secretary of the Air Force to “provide Congress with a high-confidence launch date.” The statement said the objective launch date remains December 2008, and that the program “is executing to that date with significant margin.”

Davidson was not able to clarify that statement by press time.

SBSS is a key program in the Air Force’s broader effort to achieve better space-situational awareness, which service officials say is needed due to the increasing number of threats to its on-orbit satellites. The service said China’s recent test of an anti-satellite weapon illustrated only the most visible sign of growing efforts around the world to develop such capabilities.

Nevertheless, SBSS and other protective efforts, including development of threat-monitoring sensors for installation aboard operational spacecraft, also are on the unfunded priorities list. The Self Awareness Space Situational Awareness program, ranked No. 12 on the list, was not included in the Air Force’s 2008 budget request. The service is now asking Congress for $50 million to begin work on the program, the document says.

The Air Force also is asking Congress to provide an additional $9.8 million for upgrades to the Space Fence, a network of ground-based radars for tracking space objects. The Air Force’s 2008 request for the Fence is $4 million, about $10 million less than planned a year ago. The change has delayed planned upgrades that would enable the system to track smaller objects.

The unfunded list also seeks a $7 million congressional boost to the Air Force’s $4.6 million request for upgrades to the Rapid Attack Reporting and Detection System, which is designed to detect satellite jamming attempts. The upgrades would enable to the system to detect kinetic or directed energy attacks, and the additional funding would enable the Air Force to field the new capability in late 2010 instead of late 2011.

Other unfunded space priorities for 2008 include:

  • A backup ground station for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High missile warning satellites. The list calls for $27 million on top of the Air Force’s $1.04 billion request for the SBIRS program in 2008 to pay for the backup ground station. The documents note that the Air Force has a backup station at prime contractor Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Boulder, Colo., but said that location does not provided the desired level of protection. The Air Force developed a backup SBIRS mission control station, but only had sufficient funding to design the system to accept data from SBIRS sensors that are located aboard classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits. The money specified in the unfunded priorities list would go towards modifying that equipment to accept data from the SBIRS satellites that will be placed in geostationary orbit.
  • Additional courses and a distance learning program to enable more students to enroll at the National Security Space Institute in Colorado. The Air Force wants Congress to add $3.3 million to the Air Force’s $17.3 million request for the school, which it considers a vital part of training the next generation of space professionals.