SPACE SYMPOSIUM NEWS: Space Force Struggles to Track Rising Number of Objects in Orbit
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — With the number of objects in space growing exponentially, the Space Force requires new technologies to track those objects and minimize collisions, the service’s top official said April 19.
Fifty-three nations have begun operating satellites in space since 2008, increasing active satellites orbiting the Earth by nearly 500 percent, according to the Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman.
Additionally, “the amount of trackable debris has dramatically risen,” Saltzman said during a keynote address at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium. The International Space Station has had 1,500 close approaches and taken six debris avoidance maneuvers in the last year, “mostly due of course to the irresponsible Russian [anti-satellite weapon] test in late 2021,” he noted.
“Obviously with human life on orbit, we spend a tremendous amount of time making sure that we understand as best we can anything that could endanger the lives of those astronauts,” Saltzman said during a media briefing at the symposium. “And so we are hypersensitive to collision avoidance associated with the" space station.
And “despite the needs for increased space awareness” as the amount of systems and debris in orbit has grown, “space domain capabilities for space awareness are still lagging,” he said.
Specifically, there are challenges “with how long it takes to get the data and make sense out of it,” Saltzman said. “When I hear about a breakup that occurred of a rocket body, where one rocket body became five pieces of rocket body, but it took us a couple of days to put all that information together — okay, that's probably not the kind of timeline” that would allow the Space Force to take action.
Legacy space domain awareness systems were designed merely to “catalog objects in space, so we knew what was there and could basically account for if things were going to run into each other,” he said. “That’s just not going to be sufficient when we start talking about space as a warfighting domain.
“It’s about comprehensive data, it’s about access to all regions and all orbital regimes,” he continued. “It's about rapid fusion of that information — the massive amount of data that’s coming in — and getting better and better and better so that we can operate at an operationally relevant timeline, not a catalog and maintenance timeline.”
The Space Force’s director of science, technology and research Dr. Joel Mozer said his office is in the process of releasing a request for proposal for its Space Strategic Technology Institutes, which will “comprise a network of universities and industry collaborating with the government laboratories to address space research, development and demonstration needs,” according to an unclassified Space Force presentation from October 2022. One of the institutes will be focused on space domain awareness and beyond geosynchronous orbits, Mozer said during a media briefing.
“We know we need to apply advanced technologies to space domain awareness,” he said. “We need to figure out better ways to see what's coming, and we need to look farther out.”
Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, Space Operations Command commander, echoed the need for improved space domain awareness.
“We have the world's best capabilities today, but they need to continue to be better,” he told reporters. “The number of trackable objects on orbit, that number has gone up about 90 percent in the last three years, so there's just a rapid expansion of those objects. And it's not just about tracking the objects, but it's about knowing about what the threats are on orbit, maintaining custody of those threats and then doing things about that.”
That said, a collision of space objects is likely inevitable as most of those objects do not have the ability to maneuver, Saltzman said.
“47,000 objects on orbit — 47,000 that can hit 46,999, that’s a big math problem,” he said. “And that’s what the system is trying to keep up with," adding that there are also objects too small to detect that the command doesn't know about.
“Yeah, there's going to be collisions,” he said. “Do I think we can watch and prioritize the things that we're most sensitive on? I do, I think we have that capability.”