Satellite will track space junk

Air Force aims to make orbital space safer with a better view of what's floating around

MEET THE JETSAM: The space around Earth is occupied by satellites used for geographic positioning, weather observations, radio communications, space observations and many other uses. But what it hasn’t had is a satellite to keep an eye on all the other satellites, spent rocket stages and junk floating around up there.

The Air Force is planning to launch the Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite, which is designed to provide a view from space of everything orbiting Earth. The SBSS program is intended to support Defense Department operations but could also help NASA determine safe flight paths for the International Space Station, Space Shuttle or whatever might follow those programs.

The launch was scheduled for July 8 but has been delayed after tests found a software problem in a Minotaur IV rocket similar to the one that will be used to lift the satellite in into space. A new launch date hasn't been set, but eventually the SBSS satellite will be off the ground.

It’s an idea, in development since 2001, whose time has come.

Space junk, more politely known as orbital debris, is a growing potential problem for working satellites and other spacecraft. The Air Force’s ground-based radar and telescopes track about 1,000 satellites and 20,000 pieces of debris in orbit, the Washington Post reported.

But there are millions of bits of space-borne junk. Schematics depicting known orbital debris look practically like a galaxy. Not all of it is of consequence, but debris as small as four inches across is enough to destroy a satellite.

And the amount of it is only going to grow, as China, the European Union and other countries launch their own global positioning systems in the coming decades.

The SBSS program could avoid a lot of potential damage by providing a more detailed view. And after that, how about going to the next phase, and getting a cleanup crew of satellites in orbit?

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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