COLORADO SPRINGS — The U.S. Space Force is facing a new challenge in its role to safeguard the country’s satellites from foreign threats, as Russian and Chinese satellites engage in disruptive maneuvers and follow other nations’ spacecraft in orbit.
Military leaders have raised concerns about the “cat-and-mouse” games they claim are being played, which has resulted in confusion and potential security risks. To counter this, the Space Force is increasing funding for ground and space-based sensors to gain a better understanding of the situation in orbit.
“It’s a genuine concern. Physics absolutely makes it hard,” said Lt. Gen. Philip Garrant, deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans, programs and requirements.
“Space domain awareness is a really critical part of our investment,” said Garrant. Space domain awareness is the term used by the military for the ability to track and identify objects in orbit.
“It’s not just tracking and monitoring but also characterizing what type of spacecraft it is and anticipating its behavior,” he told SpaceNews last week at the Pentagon.
Garrant said the Space Force budget request for fiscal year 2024 includes $584 million for space-tracking programs, $100 million more than what was allocated in 2023. The budget funds ground-based radar, optical telescopes and surveillance satellites in orbit, as well as space-tracking data from private companies.
Focus on GEO belt
Most of the spending on space domain awareness is focused on geosynchronous orbit, where the military stations its most valuable satellites.
The largest space-tracking programs funded in the 2024 include the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC), a planned network of radar sites in three locations around the world. The Space Force also continues to fund upgrades to its telescopes known as the Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System.
“The upgraded system will discover currently undetectable space threats, reduce an adversary’s tactical surprise and deliver the data required to support accurate, timely, actionable space domain awareness,” the Space Force said in budget justification documents.
The Space Force in its budget documents said it aims to provide a “global capability to positively ID an adversary committing an orbital attack.”
Garrant said the Space Force is working with the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. intelligence agency that builds spy satellites, to increase coverage of the geostationary belt.
The Space Force operates a constellation known as the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). Two new GSSAP satellites launched to orbit in January 2022 on an Atlas 5 rocket.
Separately, the Space Force and the NRO have worked together on a new satellite to augment the Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) spacecraft launched in 2010. A jointly funded satellite built by the NRO, called SilentBarker, is scheduled to launch later this year on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
Demands from U.S. Space Command
U.S. Space Command, the organization that oversees joint-military operations in the space domain, has openly advocated for more spending in space-tracking and capabilities to identify threats.
Garrant said the challenge for U.S. Space Command is that data updates today are not frequent enough to be able to keep up with maneuvering Chinese or Russian satellites.
“If we can have a bigger network, and a bigger architecture, that gives us better revisit, better custody, and maybe we can make some assumptions about what an object is doing,” he said.
Launching surveillance satellites on demand
In another effort to provide more timely intelligence, the Space Force plans to launch small surveillance satellites to orbit under a program known as “responsive space,” using commercial launch vehicles to launch a mission on 24 hours’ notice.
This will be attempted as early as May with a mission called Victus Nox. A small satellite carrying an optical imaging sensor will launch on a Firefly small launcher.
Victus Nox is an example of “how we get after it quickly,” Garrant said.
If a sensor detects an object moving in unusual ways, the Space Force could rapidly deploy a small satellite to do further inspection, he said. “Responsive launch could be an avenue to do that.”