Space Force Struggles To Track Objects in Orbit
Air Force photo
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — Space is an increasingly crowded domain, with governments and commercial companies across the globe launching more and more systems into orbit. Meanwhile, the Space Force is struggling to keep tabs on what’s happening up there, service officials say.
In the last 15 years, 53 nations have begun operating satellites in space, increasing active satellites orbiting the Earth by nearly 500 percent, Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said during a keynote address at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium.
With more countries and companies operating in space, the number of orbital launches is expected to go up exponentially in the coming years. Dr. Chris Scolese, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said at the symposium the NRO alone is planning to quadruple the number of satellites it has in orbit over the next decade.
Saltzman said along with the operational systems in space, “the amount of trackable debris has dramatically risen.” The International Space Station has had 1,500 close approaches and taken six debris avoidance maneuvers in the last year, he said.
“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,” he said.
Despite the need for improved space domain awareness as the number of systems and debris in orbit has risen, the Space Force’s monitoring systems are “still lagging,” Saltzman said.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of Space Operations Command, said while the Space Force has the world’s best capabilities, they aren’t good enough. It’s not just about tracking the increasing number of objects in orbit, “but it’s about knowing about what the threats are on orbit, maintaining custody of those threats and then doing things about that,” he said.
Saltzman said it takes too long to get data and make sense of it. “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 meaningful 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.”
Sometime this year, Space Systems Command is planning to launch an operational demonstration mission called Victus Nox. The mission is part of the command’s Tactically Responsive Space portfolio, which is intended to demonstrate how to respond “to a real threat with an operationally relevant capability within operationally relevant timelines,” according to a command release. The command’s leader Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein said an operationally relevant timeline means responding within 24 hours.
Victus Nox will be a low-Earth orbit mission to get after “growing the space domain awareness architecture to prove that we can respond to a threat within 24 hours,” Guetlein said.
Firefly Aerospace and Millennium Space Systems announced in October that Space Systems Command had awarded them contracts to provide launch services and the satellite for Victus Nox, respectively.
The Space Force has not given the two companies the exact timeline for when the mission will take place, Firefly CEO Bill Weber said at the symposium.
“We’re going to enter a window,” then the Space Force “will say to us during that window, ‘Launch within 24 hours,” he said. “We will make the payload, lift the rocket vertical and both will launch, and that is as much as we know right now, and we don’t need to know anything more than that.”
Guetlein said he anticipates Victus Nox is “not going to make 24 hours — they’re going to make it in about a week, which is tremendously shorter than we’ve ever done in the past.” The goal is to have an “enduring” tactically responsive space capability by 2025 or 2026, said Lt. Col. Mackenzie Birchenough, the material leader of the command’s Space Safari program office, which is leading the Victus Nox mission.
Along with its space capabilities, the Space Force’s ground systems need modernizing, according to a Government Accountability Office report, “Satellite Control Network: Updating Sustainment Plan Would Help Space Force Better Manage Future Efforts,” published April 10.
Managed by the 22nd Space Operations Squadron, the Satellite Control Network comprises 19 ground antennas across the globe that support the launch and day-to-day operations of U.S. government satellites, more than 90 percent of which are Space Force or NRO satellites, according to slides shown during a tour of the squadron’s operations floor at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado.
“The network is facing sustainment and obsolescence issues while demands on the system are increasing” due to the rising number of satellites in orbit, the GAO report said. It recommended the Space Force update the network’s lifecycle sustainment plan or issue a new one “that includes current efforts and Space Force responsibilities.”
GAO’s findings “very much portrayed our feelings,” said the 22nd Space Operations Squadron’s director of operations Lt. Col. Jason Panzarello.
“The number of satellites will continue to go up,” he said during the tour. “The number of antennas that we have going up is notional at this point.”
The network’s existing infrastructure was primarily built in the 1970s, and all the antennas are mechanical, “so the antenna has to physically turn and move to point at the contact,” said the squadron’s commander Lt. Col. Jaime Garcia.
The Space Force is currently working on a Satellite Communication Augmentation Resource effort to acquire 12 new, higher-capacity antennas, with the first prototype expected in 2025, the GAO report said.
Those new antennas would have “phased array” capabilities such as a “digital pointing system,” Garcia said. The “software-defined transmission capability” would give the network “a lot more capacity to handle the volume of satellites that we’re anticipating,” he added.
As the Space Force seeks to upgrade its ability to keep track of space systems critical to national security, the Defense Department is in the process of transferring a number of its space situational awareness responsibilities to the Commerce Department.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3, which tasked the Commerce Department to build a space situational awareness system for commercial and civil operators to allow the Defense Department to focus on national security matters in space.
“The operating domain has significantly evolved,” with commercial companies increasingly launching systems into space, said Travis Langster, the principal director of space and missile defense policy at the Defense Department. “Spaceflight safety for commercial and civil doesn’t inherently require a military system,” hence the decision to transition several of those responsibilities to the Commerce Department.
The transition is complicated, but the two departments are “making great progress,” said the director of the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce Dr. Richard DalBello.
“There are a lot of complicated issues to consider … on data, roles and responsibilities, the fact that DoD actually has a global presence and sharing information, and what part of that task are we going to take over,” DalBello said. The two departments signed a memorandum of agreement in September and have set up working groups to tackle “the hard issues,” he said.
Phase one of the Commerce Department’s space situational awareness system is scheduled to be implemented in the third quarter of fiscal year 2024, DalBello said, adding that initially Commerce will be “relying heavily on the DoD core data that comes from the Space Surveillance Network that they run,” and then “leveraging new data sources.”
“It’s our goal to stand up a completely unclassified system and to ensure that there’s robust data sharing” with commercial operators,” he said. “We have to move to a world where there’s more transparency in what commercial operators are doing — where they are, they need to share the location information, they need to share the maneuver information, and we should be able to reshare that information.”
Langster said going forward the Defense Department will look to acquire technology that is not necessarily different from that of the Commerce Department, but will have different applications and use cases to achieve robust space domain awareness. This involves not only situational awareness, but also “understanding and characterizing, predicting and attributing what’s happening in the domain, being able to get as close as we can to understanding intent and having the capabilities to respond to activities in space that threaten our national security interests,” he said.
Despite these efforts to expand the United States’ domain awareness, a collision of space objects is likely inevitable, as most of the 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,” not including objects too small to detect.
“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.”