WASHINGTON — A geosynchronous surveillance satellite operated by the U.S. Space Force reached the end of its lifespan and was recently taken out of service.
The satellite was part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program known as GSSAP. The Space Systems Command confirmed that GSSAP Space Vehicle 2, in orbit since 2014, has been deactivated.
“GSSAP 2 has run through the passivation and end of life checklist. It is now in a graveyard orbit,” Lt. Col. Greg Fertig, deputy program manager at the Space Systems Command’s GSSAP Program Office, said Aug. 14 in a statement to SpaceNews.
GSSAP 2 was one of six satellites made by Northrop Grumman that the U.S. Air Force began to launch in 2014. The remaining five are still in service. The newest pair of GSSAPs launched in 2022.
The satellites are operated by Space Force units at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. The Space Operations Command announced Aug. 2 that GSSAP 2 was out of service.
GSSAPs are deployed near geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles above Earth. The satellites are designed to be maneuverable and perform rendezvous and proximity operations to take close-up looks at other satellites or objects of interest.
The Pentagon in 2014 decided to reveal the existence of the GSSAP program, which had been previously classified. The military’s top space commander at the time, Gen. John Hyten, said the declassification was “to make sure we send a message to the world that says: Anything you do in the geosynchronous orbit we will know about.”
GSSAP limited by fuel supply
The surveillance of the GEO belt is a top priority for the U.S. military, and GSSAP satellites are highly valuable assets used to keep tabs on adversaries, said Space Command’s deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Shaw.
As more countries deploy assets in the GEO belt — some alleged to be inspector satellites tailing U.S. spacecraft — the demand for GSSAP has grown, Shaw said. Although the satellites carry enough fuel to operate for up to seven years, Shaw said maneuvers have to be carefully planned to minimize fuel consumption.
The recently retired GSSAP 2 operated for more than eight years, exceeding its projected lifespan.
Shaw has called on the Space Force to field refuelable satellites in the future so military operators can “maneuver without regret.”
In response to these concerns, the Space Systems Command is planning experiments and demonstrations of in-orbit satellite refueling.
To keep up with the demand for GSSAP assets, the Space Force has ordered two more satellites from Northrop Grumman, Fertig said. These will be GSSAP vehicles 7 and 8.