SAN DIEGO — As the number of spacecraft on orbit continues to increase and the threats to those spacecraft continue to grow more sophisticated, the operators of military, civil, commercial and allied satellites all need to share more information with one another, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. William Shelton said June 10.
Exchanging data about the location of satellites is just one of many steps that can be taken to improve the ability of both government and commercial satellite operators to understand what is going on in space and around their satellites, a concept known in the military as space situational awareness, he said. Shelton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, spoke at the ISCe Satellite Communications conference in San Diego.
The United States is more dependent than ever before on space assets, and threats to those assets grow every day, he said. As more satellites come on orbit, the likelihood of radio frequency interference and unintentional collisions rises. Intentional jamming of satellite signals has become commonplace, and kinetic and laser attacks on satellites have been demonstrated. But it is cyber threats that are the most concerning, Shelton said.
“This is an area that is growing leaps and bounds,” he said. “There are some nations that have thousands of people working the cyber threat and they are becoming very offensive in their capability. They are exploiting our networks every day. They’re on them, we know that they’re on them, and what scares us most is what we don’t know [about what] they’re doing on our networks.”
The question of protecting space assets is not only a technical problem but a policy problem as well. While there is an international body that oversees satellite spectrum use, the International Telecommunications Union, there is no organization responsible for monitoring the physical space in geosynchronous orbit. The Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSOC) is currently the most sophisticated space watcher, continuously tracking more than 18,000 objects.
“How do we deal with this problem? Who’s going to be the traffic cop in space? There’s nobody else really that has the capability to do this. We have not been tasked, nationally or internationally, to be the [Federal Aviation Administration] for spacecraft. This is an area that must be worked and must be worked soon,” Shelton said.
The Air Force is working to address the problems associated with keeping space a safe place. As part of its neighborhood watch effort, JSOC has assembled an “emergency phonebook” of contact information for military, civilian and commercial parties who might need to know if an event in space is occurring. The center also is conducting quarterly reviews on electromagnetic events, and Air Force officials now routinely visit commercial satellite control centers to ensure routine dialogue with the industry.
The Air Force also has developed space condition levels akin to those used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Shelton has the authority to declare three different levels of threat, and there are two more levels that can be declared by higher ranking military officers.
The next step in space situational awareness is bringing in all the available data from military, civil, commercial and allied sources into a network-centric database. Concerns about sharing proprietary data would have to be addressed, but ultimately this type of collaboration would benefit everyone involved, Shelton said.
“All of the operators in the space domain have information to contribute,” he said. “Right now that data is not networked, it’s not tied together, and in some cases, it’s not even shared.”
“I waste a lot of space surveillance assets on tracking U.S. satellites. You as a space operator, you darn well better know where your satellite is, so why don’t you just tell me that? Give me tracking vectors, and I can put them into my system. Then I can have the space surveillance assets looking for the bad guys.”