Satellite Communications

Air Force unveils secret space surveillance satellites

The Air Force has pulled back the curtain on a formerly secret satellite program intended to keep tabs on other spacecraft and space debris in geosynchronous orbit.

In a speech at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium and Technology exposition on Feb 21., Gen. William Shelton, the commander of Air Force Space Command, announced the existence of the previously classified Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). The Air Force is planning to launch two of the space surveillance into geosynchronous orbit this year.

The two satellites are intended to operate above and below the geosynchronous belt, using electro-optical sensors to collect information on space objects in that region. Commercial satellites and critical national security assets including the Space-Based Infrared System and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation are based in this region, according to Aviation Week.

 The GSSAP satellites will be maneuverable, allowing them to collect information on specific targets to provide accurate tracking and characterization. The two launched this year will be followed by two more in 2016.

“GSSAP will present a significant improvement in space object surveillance, not only for better collision avoidance, but also for detecting threats,” Shelton said, according to the Air Force. “GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have, which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes.”

Protecting space assets has become a primary concern for the Defense Department and the Air Force, as the military increasingly relies upon space-based assets for communications, navigation, and surveillance. The Space-based Surveillance System (SBSS) became operational in 2013, and the first pathfinder satellite has been effectively used to decrease the risk to satellites by detecting threats from space junk. The SBSS, which operates in low-Earth orbit, is capable of looking up into geosynchronous orbits, but is unable to carry out high-fidelity imagery because of distance. Objects in low-Earth orbit have altitudes ranging from 99 to 1,200 miles; the geosynchronous belt is about 22,300 miles above Earth.

The secret program provides a likely reason why there has not been a SBSS follow-on. Little information has been released regarding the capabilities of the GSSAP satellites, other than their use of electro-optical sensors and that two of them can be launched together on a Delta IV rocket. Their cost remains classified, possibly to hide their capabilities.

The military’s concern for their satellites is not unwarranted, as China and Russia continue to develop anti-satellite capabilities, which could include cyber weapons, jamming devices, high- and low-earth orbit ASAT missiles, and micro-satellites that could conduct kinetic kills or disrupt orbits. The GSSAP satellites could possibly detect targeting sensors covertly moved near important satellites.

There has been speculation that the intent of declassifying the program is to provide a deterrent effect to space competitors, while also increasing transparency. Russia and China are likely to still voice concerns, however, as debate regarding appropriate military use of space continues.


About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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