BOSTON U.S. Air Force Space Command recently demonstrated its ability to incorporate data from non-Air Force satellite operators into its system that tracks what is happening in space, according to the official overseeing the effort.

Improving space situational awareness (SSA) by taking advantage of a variety of existing data sources rather than relying exclusively on developing new sensors is particularly important given tightened federal budgets in recent years, according to Col. Robert Wright, director of Air Force Space Command’s Space Innovation and Development Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The demonstration, which took place at Schriever Feb. 20, is part of a program called Talon Red Cloud that began in 2007 and is intended to draw on spacecraft position data processed by satellite operators from other military services and agencies, civil agencies and commercial firms.

Those satellite operators have access to ephemeris spacecraft data that allows them to monitor position more easily than the Air Force can with its space surveillance sensors, Wright said in an interview. If the Air Force can rely on data from those operators, it can free up its sensors to handle other tasks, he said.

Wright declined to specify the providers of the data used in the Feb. 20 demonstration, which showed that the data could be imported into the Space Defense Operations Center (SPADOC) computer system used for monitoring objects on orbit.

Additional project objectives that will likely be completed by the end of this summer include certifying that the Air Force can rely on position data from the other operations, and automating the data flow into the SPADOC computer system, Wright said.

Wright would not say how much is being spent on Talon Red Cloud, but said half of the funding comes from the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space program office. Wright noted that the Operationally Responsive Space program office, which was created in 2007, has a mandate to look for new ways of using existing systems to satisfy urgent military needs, which is similar to the work that has historically been conducted by the Space Innovation and Development Center’s Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities office, and said he looks forward to continued collaboration between the two organizations.

Events like China’s demonstration of an anti-satellite weapon, the U.S. military’s shootdown of a falling intelligence spacecraft, and the recent collision between an Iridium commercial telecommunications satellite and an old Russian communications satellite, have highlighted the importance of space situational awareness and led to increased interest from commercial firms in collaborating with the Air Force to improve this capability, according to Col. Shawn Barnes, command lead and requirements division chief for space situational awareness and command and control at Space Command.

The Air Force currently provides collision avoidance data to commercial firms at no cost. However, Barnes said in an interview that the Air Force should consider charging a fee in order to cover the cost of providing the information.

The Space Innovation and Development Center is also looking toward radio astronomy telescopes operated by organizations outside the military to bolster its SSA capabilities, Wright said. This effort, known as Talon Cosmology, began recently and is intended primarily to help the Air Force better monitor objects in deep space, he said.

This could include military satellites, other U.S. government spacecraft like those used for planetary observation missions, commercial satellites, and spacecraft launched by other nations, he said.

While Wright declined to go into detail about the Talon Cosmology effort, he said Space Command has held discussions with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute of Mountain View,Calif., on using the Allen Telescope Array, a radio interferometer SETI is building in phases several hours north of San Francisco.

The array has 42 radio astronomy antennas today, and the organization plans ultimately to increase that figure to 350, according to a fact sheet on its Web site. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has donated $25 million thus far, and additional funds have come from sources including the institute, the University of California, Berkeley, and the National Science Foundation, according to the fact sheet.

Tom Pierson, chief executive officer of the institute, said that the organization is working in partnership with UC Berkeley to incrementally add to the array, with plans to first bring it to 128 antennas, and then to 256 antennas, with each block costing about $20 million.

The institute does not have a timeframe for the additional antennas, Pierson said. “We know what to build, the costs are now well-understood, and we are ready to begin construction at any time,” he said. “But it requires finding the money – not an easy thing to do in this economic environment.”

The institute is planning to conduct demonstrations for the Air Force of the arrays’ capabilities, first to track operational satellites, and then to track orbital debris, Pierson said in an e-mail. The latter capability could be particularly useful to the U.S. government given the threat posed to the international space station, Hubble Space Telescope, and other spacecraft in low Earth orbit by the recent collision between the Iridium and Russian satellites, he said.

If the array became a valued part of the Air Force’s space situational awareness capabilities, the service may provide funding to assist with the operation and support of the sensors, Pierson said.

Other Air Force SSA efforts include the Rapid Attack Identification and Reporting System (RAIDRS) Block 10, which is intended to help the service locate and characterize radio frequency interference with satellites. That system was planned at one time for an initial deployment in 2007, but was scaled back and delayed in order to keep costs under control.

However, initial deployment is now expected in 2010, Barnes said. The work is simply taking longer than previously expected, he said.

Kathryn Herr, a spokeswoman for Integral Systems of Lanham, Md., the RAIDRS prime contractor, declined to comment on the matter.

The Air Force initially planned to follow RAIDRS Block 10 with RAIDRS Block 20, which was envisioned as capable of watching for a broader array of threats. However, that name has been eliminated as its plans bore little relation to Block 10, and the work will be incorporated into a larger effort called the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System, which is intended to replace the SPADOC computer system, Barnes said.

The Air Force lost one sensor in 2008 that played an important role with SSA when it decommissioned the Midcourse Space Experiment. While the service had hoped to launch the first Space Based Space Surveillance System satellite prior to the end of the Midcourse Space Experiment’s life, it has not had SSA problems thus far and is confident in its SSA capabilities while awaiting launch of the new satellite this spring, Barnes said.

Another important part of SSA is monitoring space weather events that can disrupt satellite capabilities. To date, the Air Force has relied upon sensors aboard the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program constellation to help keep an eye on space weather, Barnes said.

The Air Force had planned to include a new sensor suite aboard the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System constellation, but those plans changed when the satellites, which are built by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Redondo Beach, Calif., encountered technical difficulties that led to restructuring the program in 2006.

Barnes said the Air Force will push forward in 2010 with efforts to find a new way to get the sensors into space. Joseph Davidson, a spokesman for the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the planned 2010 funding for the work, but said plans are being refined to procure sensors that require little or no development work and could be ready to launch in 2015.

Space Command also is working to improve its modeling capabilities to better forecast space weather events, which will be particularly critical as the 11-year solar cycle approaches a period of peak activity that threatens increased disruptions for satellites, Barnes said.

The command also is collaborating more closely with the intelligence community so that it can go beyond understanding where satellites launched by other countries are orbiting to what they are doing, Barnes said.