New U.S. Air Force Space Surveillance Satellites Require Great Precision

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WASHINGTON — Two high-orbiting U.S. Air Force space surveillance satellites that launched in July must show “unprecedented” maneuvering accuracy given their potential to cause damage in a heavily used belt of Earth orbit, according to a professional journal published by the service.

The Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites are capable of approaching and observing nearly 600 satellites in geosynchronous orbit, two former chief scientists for Air Force Space Command wrote in the November-December issue of the Air & Space Power Journal, a professional journal published by the Air Force Research Institute.

Air Force officials publicly disclosed the previously classified space surveillance program in February 2014 and have acknowledged that the satellites would perform rendezvous and proximity maneuvers to allow close-up looks at spacecraft in geosynchronous orbits, some 36,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface.

According to an Air Force fact sheet, the two-satellite system will operate in a “near-geosynchrous orbit regime” to provide accurate tracking and characterization of man-made orbiting objects. Satellites with missions including communications and missile warning operate in geosynchronous orbit.

The new capability requires extra careful handling, Gene McCall and John Darrah wrote in the article, titled “Space Situational Awareness: Difficult, expensive — and necessary.” Both men have served as chief scientist at Space Command.

“Assuredly, the Air Force and its contractors well understand that the GSSAP vehicles must possess unprecedented accuracy in terms of propulsion and positioning,” the article said. “A collision will result in significant political and financial problems; moreover, it could produce debris capable of contaminating a large portion of the geosynchronous orbit. Certainly, maneuvering operations will generate very tense times at the satellite control center at Schriever.”

The GSSAP satellites, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, are controlled by operators at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Gen. John Hyten, the commander of Air Force Space Command, told SpaceNews in December that the service is taking it very slowly in testing the GSSAP satellites on orbit. “We’re taking a very deliberate approach to checking the satellites out to make sure we understand exactly how they work, exactly how the systems are characterized, exactly what we see and understand,” he said.

Hyten said he expected it would be several months before the satellites were fully operational. Two additional satellites are notionally scheduled to launch in 2016.

Eventually, the article said, the Air Force should deploy the capability to closely observe all non-U.S. satellites regardless of orbit, noting that the GSSAP program is a good first step.

McCall and Darrah also suggested that the Air Force study building a fleet of what they call “companion” space vehicles to keep tabs on non-U.S. satellites that may “contribute significantly to an adversary’s war plans.” The possibly reusable satellites would orbit at altitudes ranging from 150 to 2,000 kilometers.

“The companions should occupy the same orbit as the satellite of interest in close proximity to observe the actions and functions of the target,” the article said. “It may be possible to design a generic companion satellite that will function as a monitor for a large class of foreign assets, or we may need to field a special satellite for each foreign asset. In either case, costs of construction, launch, and operation will be significant factors in deciding whether to deploy such devices.”