U.S. Air Force Envisions Sharing Space Surveillance Data with Scientists

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is open to the idea of sharing data from its Space Surveillance Network with scientists interested in using that data to search for asteroids or other research, a service official said.

Maj. Gen. Martin Whelan, director of space operations for the Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, said data that the military doesn’t need for its space situational awareness mission could be made available to astronomers.

“We collect a lot of data, and a lot of data we throw off to the side because it isn’t relevant to national security,” Whelan said in a talk at an asteroid science symposium here March 26 organized by the Universities Space Research Association and George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Our trash is your treasure.”

Maj. Gen. Martin Whelan
“We collect a lot of data, and a lot of data we throw off to the side because it isn’t relevant to national security,” Maj. Gen. Martin Whelan said in a talk at an asteroid science symposium. “Our trash is your treasure.” Credit: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

Whelan said that upgrades to the network, including the upcoming Space Surveillance Telescope and the Space Fence radar, will provide the Air Force will vast amounts of additional data, which the service plans to process only to the level needed to carry out its mission of tracking objects in Earth orbit.

“We’re going to have all of this data. We’re not going to process it as deeply as you might process data,” he said. “We will consume what we want to consume, the rest of it will go onto the floor.”

Of most interest to scientists may be the Space Surveillance Telescope, a project started by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2002. Originally tested in New Mexico, the optical telescope will be permanently based in Australia under a 2013 agreement between the governments of Australia and the United States.

Whelan said DARPA will hand over the telescope to the Air Force to incorporate into the Space Surveillance Network by 2017. “Those of you who have played with this know that it is a vacuum cleaner. It sucks up all kinds of data,” he said of the telescope.

That telescope, coupled with the Space Fence radar system scheduled to begin operating by 2019, will greatly increase the Air Force’s ability to track satellites and other objects in Earth orbit. “We expect our catalog to explode in size,” Whelan said, from the current 22,000 objects being tracked to more than 50,000.

Whelan suggested that as the Air Force continues to focus on tracking objects in Earth orbit and identifying any potential collisions, it could share some data with scientists using the same kind of space situational awareness sharing agreements already in place with other countries and companies.

No such agreements to share data with scientists exist today, he said, but added there was nothing that explicitly prohibited them. “It doesn’t say you can’t use it for scientific purposes,” Whelan said. “If there’s utility out there, there’s a mechanism that we can use to share data. You just have to ask.”

Some other data from national security sensors related to near-Earth objects does make its way to scientists today.

In a separate presentation at the symposium, Mark Boslough of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico showed a map of airbursts in the upper atmosphere caused by exploding meteors. He described the data, released just in the last few months, as coming from “U.S. government sensors” without being more specific. It is widely believed, however, that the information comes from U.S. missile warning satellites.

Those data showed approximately 550 such events from 1994 through 2013, including the February 2013 airburst above Chelyabinsk, Russia, that released the equivalent of nearly half a megaton of TNT. That single event, Boslough said, accounted for at least as much energy as all the others combined.

Space Surveillance Network
Space Surveillance Network. Credit: SpaceNews/Lance H. Marburger

Whelan acknowledged that he was not sure if the data the Space Surveillance Network collects would be useful for near-Earth object or other studies, and did not offer specifics about the types of data that would likely be available. “I don’t know if it’s going to be useful data to you or not,” he said.

He suggested, though, that scientists who might be interested in the data start discussions with the Air Force now about accessing it, even though the new Space Surveillance Telescope has yet to enter service.

“It’s going to be hard for us. We don’t deal with academia and academia doesn’t really deal with the military,” Whelan said. “If there’s utility, you need to start making the noise now.”