Air Force SBSS

Satellite communications

Orbiting surveillance system protects satellites from space junk

The Air Force’s Boeing Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) system, which became fully operational in April 2013, has decreased the risk to satellites by 66 percent by identifying threats more quickly and allowing operators to react earlier.

SBSS is an all-weather, low-earth orbit sensor, operating at an altitude of 390 miles, that collects 24-hour Space Object Identification data to identify and track possible space hazards. It is capable of monitoring objects as small as a one-meter cube that is 22,236 miles from Earth.

Launched in September 2010, SBSS provides data used to predict the trajectories of space objects, allowing time for experts to perform evasive maneuvers.

For the military, keeping track of satellites and the multitude of other objects in space is a matter of national security. NASA estimates that about 500,000 objects have accumulated in orbit since the dawn of the Space Age, ranging from operational and out-of-service satellites to spent rocket stages and debris the size of a marble or smaller. At orbiting speeds of up to 17,500 mph, however, even the smallest piece of space junk can damage a communications satellite and put strategic communications at risk.

The Air Force’s ground-based satellites and radar systems track about 1,000 satellites and 20,000 pieces of debris, but the service is looking to improve its surveillance. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently announced it would move its Space Surveillance Telescope, which is part of the Air Force’s monitoring network, from New Mexico to Australia, where it would have a better look at objects in geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles above Earth.

SBSS has an advantage over ground-based systems because it can maintain an unobstructed view of orbiting space objects. Ground-based systems are susceptible to weather conditions, time of day and atmospheric conditions, according to Air Force Space Command.

Boeing’s system is also able to quickly move its onboard sensor, allowing it to observe objects across a broad range, as compared to ground-based sensors.

As a result of this capability, more than 3.8 million observations of deep space objects have been collected by the surveillance system, according to a Boeing announcement. Based on data prior to the SBSS’s launch, this figure represents a fivefold increase in observations and is estimated to have reduced the danger of satellites being lost by two-thirds in the past year.

"Averaging 12,000 deep-space observations per day, SBSS provides a major advantage to satellite operators who need to protect these valuable space assets that we depend on every day," said Craig Cooning, Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems vice president and general manager.

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