Date: April 18, 2020 | Outlet: CNBC.com | By Sarah Scoles
2016 a Navy satellite called MUOS-5 wasn’t doing well. Partway to its intended
orbit, it simply stalled out — but because the spacecraft was already so far
away, the dilemma’s details were hard to discern. That’s where the
Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program came in: GSSAP satellites
can sidle up to and take pictures of other orbiters, beaming the portraits back
to Earth. So from Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, operators maneuvered
the agile GSSAP satellite close to the inert MUOS-5 to inspect it. Although we
don’t know exactly how GSSAP’s data helped, MUOS-5 zipped up to its orbit a few
zoom-in approach is GSSAP’s special power — for helping U.S. satellites and
spying on foreign ones. According to data for a report from the Secure World
Foundation, a space-centric think tank, the GSSAP satellites had close
encounters with eight international orbiters between 2016 and mid-2018.
satellites’ primary job, though, is actually to watch others from a safe
distance, keep tabs on space traffic and ensure things are flowing smoothly,
securely. They also keep track of the space junk that can slam into and damage
now four GSSAP satellites are in orbit, with two more launching this year.
They’re part of an increasingly intense stare at the space beyond low-Earth
orbit: from geosynchronous orbit, or GEO, out to the Moon.
satellites out there because they provide things like communication and have
become necessary to the way the world turns. And during the Covid-19 pandemic,
tracking and protecting them — from accidental crash or purposeful meddling —
has grown even more critical than usual. “During times of crisis, timely
communication, much of which is reliant on space, is of utmost importance,” says
Diana McKissock of the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron, which tracks
and catalogs satellites.
commercial traffic escalates, officials worry about political conflict in deep
space. Programs like GSSAP aim to ensure that all systems are on track.
GSSAP isn’t alone: Back on the ground, agencies like the Intelligence Advanced
Research Projects Activity — the intelligence community’s DARPA doppelganger —
hope to create optical telescopes so powerful they can take geosynchronous
pictures from Earth. That’s useful when GSSAP satellites aren’t conveniently
close to the shot you’d like to take.
because your satellite is in GEO doesn’t mean it can immediately toodle over to
the right part of GEO,” says Jonathan McDowell of Harvard-Smithsonian’s Center
for Astrophysics, who publishes catalogs of space launches, satellite orbits
and their reentries into the atmosphere. “Plus, you might not always want
to know you’re peeping at their goods, which they absolutely
would if you toodled over.”
always been a sensitivity about going up next to other satellites and spying on
them,” says McDowell.
Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron also tracks and catalogs far-out
satellites from both the ground and space. Lots of communications equipment
live in GEO, says the squadron’s McKissock. “They’re critical to the things we
enjoy on Earth,” she says.
“assets” up there are also critical to the American defense and intelligence
communities. And keeping them in good working order is more complicated than it
used to be: There’s more debris; private industry has hugely increased the
number of active satellites, so the number of potential collisions, and actual
country-on-country threats, exist.
not the benign environment that it was when I started this job in 2010,” says
McKissock. To keep track of the action, the unit uses data from satellites,
like the ORS-5; turns on ground-based radar; and points planet-planted
telescopes toward orbit. Recently, it spooled up the so-called Space Fence, a
powerful radar system that tracks not just GEO satellites but also the smaller
pieces of debris many thousands of miles from Earth.
a new organization, called the Space Development Agency, has its gaze focused
even farther out: on everything between geosynchronous orbit and the Moon.
“Most of the investment in space architecture has been at lower altitudes,”
says Jerry Krassner, a space expert currently supporting the SDA. But more
corporations, and countries, are making plans for more distant projects. “One
of the things SDA is doing is getting out in front of that emerging threat and
attempting to deter hostile action,” says Krassner. The first aspect of that
deterrence: just watching, and letting people know it.
part of that, the SDA has proposed a fleet of sentry spaceships. Far beyond
Earth, they’d snooze until sensors indicate a problem nearby — like one
satellite edging too close to another. Then, jolted awake, they could go take a
picture of the problem, like a bystander filming a crime on their cellphone.
That picture would wend its way to an important person’s computer. That person,
perhaps the president, could call the responsible country, show them the shot,
and say, “Please cut it out.”
“gotcha” ability, the thinking goes, helps prevent bad acting in the first
place: If, for example, you know a cookie jar has a camera with
facial-recognition software on the lid, you’d probably leave it alone.
steely-eyed satellite action represents a big change from the start of space
surveillance, which focused on weapons detection and on the lower altitudes
where missiles might tread. “The high-orbit stuff was not that interesting,
because they obviously weren’t missiles,” says McDowell of Harvard-Smithsonian’s
Center for Astrophysics.
“not interesting” attitude may have fossilized and stayed a little longer than
it should have. Till now-ish. “They’ve sort of woken up,” McDowell notes, “and
said, ‘We have to be serious about this.’”