by Scott Prater
Schriever Air Force Base Public Affairs
11/28/2012 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFNS) -- Members
of the 1st and 7th Space Operations Squadron took notice when an upper
stage Russian rocket disintegrated in low earth orbit Oct. 16. The break
up introduced an estimated 500 pieces of debris into an area where the
U.S. operates a multitude of satellites, further congesting an already
crowded orbit around Earth.
The event sheds light on an ever-growing issue for the space and
satellite industry, one that seemed far fetched only a few years ago.
"The idea that big space would someday become crowded was more theory
than fact," said Lt. Col. Mike Manor, 1 SOPS commander. "Now, the
reality is that space is growing seemingly smaller as more objects are
now orbiting Earth. Few people realize there are men and women dedicated
to assuring safe passage for our assets in space."
The Space Based Space Surveillance satellite and its sister, the
Advanced Technology Risk Reduction satellite, were designed to provide
space situational awareness of the geostationary belt, but increasingly
are being tasked to support space situational awareness in other orbits
A collision with something as small as a bolt, a rivet, even bits of
shrapnel, traveling at a high rate of speed can render a satellite
inoperable, if not totally destroy it, thus it's becoming ever more
important to accurately track such debris.
Along with radar and optical sensors on the ground, SBSS and ATRR are
providing that tracking data to the Joint Space Operations Center, the
organization that keeps a real-time catalog of orbiting objects.
Maj. Patrick Slaughter, 1 SOPS assistant director of operations, says
demand for this tracking data will do nothing but grow in the years
ahead as space gets more congested and contested.
"For the longest time, we as a nation, held on to the idea that space is
a big place, but most people don't understand what's happening up
there," he said. "Break ups like this add to the congestion, but we also
have events like the Chinese Fengyun incident, that brought attention
to the idea of contested space."
In 2007, the Chinese government demonstrated the effectiveness of an
anti-satellite system by destroying one of its own weather satellites,
the Fengyun-1C weather satellite, via a ground-launched missile. Besides
creating a large debris field, the event showed that China possesses
the capability to "kill" a satellite in LEO. Manor pointed out that it's
not a big leap to assume they could do this to a U.S. satellite.
"The number of debris avoidance maneuvers required by the International
Space Station has significantly increased since that incident,"
Slaughter said. "Then we had the Iridium-Cosmos collision in 2009, where
a U.S. and Russian satellite collided over Siberia. We have to maneuver
our LOE satellites around that debris field as well."
Manor said these combined events, among others, have not only helped
drive international policy negotiations, but signaled that the world has
recognized a need for better awareness of what's happening in space.
"We can use the evolution of air travel as a model," he said. "When the
Wright brothers first took flight the skies were open. Gradually, more
aircraft shared the skies and eventually we reached a point where we
needed air traffic controllers and regulation to keep air travel safe.
Now, we've taken the rudimentary steps for space traffic control."
When the JSPOC detects a satellite is on course to collide with
something, they provide a warning to that system's operators. No doubt
similar conversations happen hundreds if not thousands of times a day
between air traffic controllers and pilots.
Placing this all in perspective, why does it matter what operations crews at 1 and 7 SOPS do?
"Along with the ground tracking stations and the JSPOC, our team is
keeping watch over space and will remain vigilant in keeping the domain
as safe as possible," Manor said. "These collective efforts not only
help minimize the potential for disastrous events, but also keep the
space domain in a condition for continued utilization by all nations.