COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Two new satellites may be launched later this year that will help the U.S. defense community better understand what is happening to the multi-million dollar spacecraft it depends on for communications, remote sensing, eavesdropping and navigation.
The largest of the two satellites, the space-based space surveillance system, will travel in low-earth orbit and peer up at satellites in the geo-synchronous belt, which is about 24,000 miles above the earth. It is also where most communications satellites loiter in fixed positions.
Fred Doyle, vice president at Ball Aerospace’s national defense business unit, said the SBSS spacecraft will allow the Air Force to keep track of its own assets as well as keep an eye on those of other nations. Ball partnered with Boeing to build the satellite.
The Air Force currently uses ground-based radar to track objects in space. This Cold War era system was initially used to search for incoming missiles from the Soviet Union. Most of the stations are configured to search the northern hemisphere. Even if there were more ground stations, that would leave large swaths of the oceans where there would still be blind spots, he said.
The Air Force uses the radar to create a catalog of items orbiting the Earth. “The intent is to use this asset to make that catalog more accurate and more current,” he said.
The SBSS will use a gimbaled telescope rather than radar to keep an eye on objects.
It can confirm the location of satellites that are sent to certain orbital slots. Once placed in an allotted slot, such spacecraft remain in fixed positions. But plans often go awry.
The Air Force may use the satellite to determine if one of its own, or a rival nation’s platform, arrived where it was supposed to arrive. If not, the telescope can determine its true position.
The SBSS will travel in a polar orbit, and make passes around the Earth several times per day. Its telescope can remained fixed on a spacecraft of particular interest, or look at several as it passes by.
It can examine objects in low-earth orbit, where many spy platforms operate, but since such satellites do not stay in fixed orbits, the amount of time it could train the telescope on such a spacecraft is short, he said. It could also potentially keep track of large pieces of space junk, the collection of debris, spent rockets, defunct satellites that litter outer space.
SBSS currently is scheduled for a five-year mission. The Defense Department is now studying how it wants to proceed with space situational awareness, so there are not any current plans to add similar satellites, Doyle said.
“Hopefully it will show its value and move the Air Force to buy additional satellites,” he added.
The latest launch date for SBSS was moved back after an Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus rocket failed as it was delivering a NASA payload earlier this year. SBSS is slated to be lofted aboard one of the company’s Minotaur 4 rockets, but since the two share sub-systems, the Air Force is awaiting a report from NASA on the cause of the failure to proceed with the SBSS launch.
Another satellite that may reach orbit this year is the Air Force Research Laboratory’s autonomous nanosatellite guardian for evaluating local space project, or ANGELS. The small satellite will demonstrate the ability to fly around larger satellites that are in geo-synchronous orbits to carry out inspections.
Nanosatellites generally weigh 10 kilograms or less — although a fact sheet distributed by the lab at the Space Symposium suggested that ANGELS will be heavier. It will carry a 12-kilogram telescope to inspect other satellites.
Neither the lab nor the satellite’s prime contractor Orbital Science Corp. would make program managers available for comment.
The launch date for ANGELS has not been determined, AFRL spokesman Michael Kleiman said.
In the realm of space protection, BAE Systems’ Merrimack, N.H., division has spent its own development funds to produce a sensor that can detect when an adversary is using radar to lock in on a satellite.
Eric Rhodes, business development manager at the electronics, intelligence and support division, likens the device to a radar detector motorists use to look for speed traps.
If an adversary wants to do harm to a spacecraft, it must first track it. While satellites routinely pass through “radar fences” as they fly over a nation’s territory, launching an anti-satellite missile requires more precise measurements and a separate beam.
“If anyone wants to do anything bad to a satellite, they have to have it on radar track. And you want to know that instantly,” Rhodes said.
The space radar warning receiver tells the satellite operator when it is being “lit up,” and counter-measures, such as moving the spacecraft into a higher orbit, can then be taken, he said.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has seen enough promise in the system to fund the next stage of development. The second-generation receiver will be designed to detect threats coming from space as well as the ground, Rhodes added.