Congress wants closer eye on threats in orbit.

Almost a year after China used anti-satellite technology to explode the Fengyun 1C, its own weather satellite, Congress chose to up the ante on satellite protection. Lawmakers used the 2008 Defense Appropriations bill to boost the Defense Department and Air Force’s request for space situational awareness (SSA) from $200 million to about $300 million.

SSA is a system for collecting data on objects in orbital space, including their location and projected trajectories. It consists of radar installations; ground- and space-based visual, infrared and other sensors; and 3-D and 4-D software for analyzing data. Objects can be possible weapons, commercial satellites or debris, which is any fragmented object greater than 10 centimeters in diameter.

Furthermore, if the United States’ satellites behave in an unexpected manner, SSA components could recognize the anomaly and provide data that analysts could use to determine if the satellite’s behavior was caused by a malfunction, enemy action or a collision.

By cataloguing and projecting the movement of objects, SSA technologies help operators avoid collisions with other satellites and fragments, such as those from the Fengyun 1C. There is no way to remove such debris. In geosynchronous orbit, “debris is forever,” said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a security policy research group.

Although the amount of money appropriated in the fiscal 2008 bill had not been made public by press time, a conference committee had proposed increased spending for certain initiatives, including:

  • Self-aware capabilities for satellite components, designed to allow equipment to diagnose and correct malfunctions.
  • Space Fence, an existing radar system of three transmission stations and six receiving stations in the United States.
  • High Accuracy Network Determination System, designed to reduce errors in the catalog of space objects tracked.
  • Space-Based Space Surveillance, a set of sensors stationed in orbit that can maintain a broader field of detection with less natural interference.
  • Rapid Attack Identification, Detection and Reporting System Block 20, the second generation of an effort DOD said will offer “attack detection, threat identification and characterization and support rapid mission impact assessments on U.S. space systems.”

With ever more satellites in orbit, a single collision could set up a cascading probability of further collisions, a theory Geoffrey Forden, a physicist and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Science, Technology and Global Security Working Group, documented in a recent paper.

“We know what the technologies and equipment for space situational awareness are and how to deploy them,” Hitchens said. “We just need to make the investment.”

That investment is designed to increase the accuracy of systems by upgrading them primarily to track smaller objects — the current threshold is about 5 centimeters — at higher altitudes and greater distances.

One way to achieve better, less expensive and more rapid awareness would be integrating U.S. systems with those that cover other parts of the globe, such as Russian and Chinese SSA assets.

But in 2003, control of the catalog of orbital space objects passed from NASA, which was driven at least partially by a culture of open information-sharing, to U.S. Strategic Command, which tightened control over SSA data, Hitchens said.

China’s weather-satellite takedown seems to have served as a warning to commercial and military space users of the need to upgrade and refine SSA. The existing system has identified and started tracking 2,317 pieces of debris from the satellite formerly known as Fengyun 1C, according to DOD’s published figures.

That’s 2,317 chances to inadvertently take out commercial or military communications.

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