WASHINGTON — The U.S. military space catalog currently serves as the main source of data about the location of more than 27,000 satellites and space debris objects. But that information is still not enough to figure out what rival nations are doing in orbit, Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, staff director of the U.S. Space Force, said Nov. 8.

Speaking at the opening session of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ ASCEND 2021 conference, Armagno said there is significant demand in the U.S. Space Force for intelligence about the space domain.

The United States’ current capabilities to track space objects date back to the 1960s when the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) started using satellites to monitor ballistic missile launches.

More than five decades later, “from a military perspective, there’s a need to understand more deeply the space domain, understand basically who is doing what to whom, and why,” said Armagno.

“We need space domain awareness,” she said. “For years, the domain has been simply recognized as an exercise in cataloguing the objects that we can see. And we’ve been using the space track catalog since the 1960s and 70s.”

More sophisticated capabilities to monitor space activities are needed not only for military and national security purposes but also due to growing commercial satellite deployments, Armagno added. 

“The aeronautics community has air traffic control, and international norms for their activity,” she said. “The space enterprise needs the same. We need air traffic control, space traffic control, if you will, we need space norms of behavior.”

“For us in the military, this is important toward not only understanding the domain but also being able to capture space superiority when and where we need it in the future,” said Armagno.

China’s activities in space are of particular concern. The chief of the U.S. Space Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond has warned the Chinese are building an arsenal of electronic and kinetic weapons to disrupt or destroy U.S. satellites. 

Military space trackers recently detected a new object orbiting along the Chinese satellite Shijian-21 that the government said is a space debris mitigation mission.

The U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron cataloged the object as an apogee kick motor that usually is used to perform a final maneuver after satellite separation so as to not pose a threat to active satellites. However, it has not been confirmed whether the object is in fact an apogee kick motor related to the space debris mitigation mission or potentially a counterspace system. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...