WASHINGTON — Space tracking sensors and artificial intelligence systems that analyze data are becoming high priorities for the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command, officials said.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond said technologies that contribute to space domain awareness are a pressing need for the U.S. Space Force.

“We need to understand what’s going on,” Raymond said Nov. 21 at the virtual Halifax International Security Forum in a joint appearance with Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s space business.

Space domain awareness is the military term used to describe the ability to monitor and identify natural objects and satellites in orbit around the Earth and also in the lunar sphere. 

The military has a large network of sensors on the ground and in space that track objects orbiting the Earth. But the Space Force wants more sophisticated intelligence capabilities to identify potential threats such as orbital weapons disguised as civilian spacecraft. Raymond said the Space Force wants to be able to collect more data but also analyze it quickly and share it with allies and civilian space organizations. 

Tracking space junk is one of the challenges in space domain awareness as debris is now considered the most immediate threat to satellites and to human presence in space. 

The Space Force does not have a mandate to clean up debris but Raymond said everyone has to do their part to  prevent more unwanted objects from being created. “One way to mitigate debris is to not create debris in the first place,” he said. It’s important to “act responsibly, not blowing up satellites, making sure satellites don’t collide, and setting engineering standards so when you launch, pieces of debris don’t come off the launch vehicles; and making sure that when satellites reach the end of their live that they don’t break into pieces.”

A ‘big data’ problem

Space domain awareness will be an area of increasing focus at U.S. Space Command, said Lt. Gen. John Shaw, the incoming deputy commander.

Shaw, who ran space operations at Vandenberg Air Force, California, on Monday takes over as the second highest ranking officer at U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Gen. James Dickinson in August became the commander of U.S. Space Command.  

“Space domain awareness is probably going to be one of General Dickinson’s highest priorities this coming year, maybe his highest priority,” Shaw said Nov. 20 during an online event hosted by the Air Force Association’s Schriever Chapter.

“We need to understand what’s happening,” said Shaw. “Space domain awareness supports everything else that we do.”

He called space awareness a “big data problem” that can’t just be fixed with more sensors but requires technologies to analyze and make sense of data. 

U.S. Space Command currently is responsible for space traffic management which requires the military to alert satellite operators of potential collisions in space. Those duties will be transferred to the Commerce Department over the next few years. “We expect that in the next National Defense Authorization Act there will be language on how DoD with cooperate with the Department of Commerce on space traffic management and how we move that forward,” said Shaw. “Working that transition will be a key piece in the next couple of years.”

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...