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Space Security Budget at a Glance April 27, 2010

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Each Tuesday BFAD features a guest blogger- these are experts from a variety of backgrounds writing about what they know best.  This week features Sam Black, Research Associate with Stimson’s Space Security Program.

by Sam Black

For non-experts, the term ‘space security’ can conjure up images of intergalactic space weapons, final frontiers, and the sci-fi channel.  The reality, perhaps to the disappointment of the average Trekkie, centers on the notion that space is the only global commons that borders every country and that space-based assets, such as satellites, are both immensely valuable and vulnerable.  Satellites facilitate communications, navigation, remote sensing, search and rescue, scientific research, and reconnaissance.  Satellite- and debris-tracking and collision avoidance are vital to protecting satellites and enhancing space security.

Called the “foundation for space control” by the US Air Force, space situational awareness (SSA), is the ability to methodically monitor and understand the rapidly changing space environment by tracking the hundreds of thousands of objects in Earth orbit.  Currently, there over 19,000 objects 10 centimeters in diameter or larger being tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network, over 90 percent of which are space debris.  With better SSA, potential collisions can be forecasted with enough notice to avoid them altogether. (Photo: Satellites on Flickr.)

The need for better SSA was highlighted by an unfortunate incident last year.  A U.S. communications satellite operated by a private company (Iridium Satellite Communications) collided with a dead Russian Cosmos satellite that was still in orbit; both were destroyed in the collision. While the U.S. Air Force has the best SSA in the world, the Air Force didn’t look for collisions involving non-essential space assets – those operated by the Intelligence Community, by NASA, and the International Space Station and Space Shuttle missions. Since the Iridium-Cosmos incident, the Air Force has taken on the additional responsibility of screening all active satellites for potential collisions.

Collisions with large objects are only part of the problem.  Space debris, including the hundreds of pieces created by the satellite collision, can be equally destructive. Objects in orbit can travel as fast as 7 kilometers a second, or roughly 15,600 miles per hour. When something is traveling that fast, it doesn’t need to be massive to cause serious damage. Debris as small as 1 centimeter across can penetrate the thin skin of a satellite. But as a Missile Defense Agency report from a few years back noted,

“While it is currently practical to shield or protect spacecraft against debris particles up to one centimeter (0.4 inch) in diameter…for larger debris, current shielding concepts become impractical.”

At present, the Air Force can’t reliably track objects smaller than 10 cm in diameter. So there are literally several hundred thousand pieces of orbital debris less than 10 cm across that: a) can damage or destroy spacecraft and b) can’t be tracked reliably. Better SSA is a necessity.

The Air Force’s RDT&E request for Fiscal Year 2011 therefore includes a number of programs aimed at boosting SSA capabilities. The Space Fence program is of special note. It’s intended to replace the Air Force Space Surveillance System (which is 50 years old) in monitoring space objects, with the goal of improving SSA for Low Earth Orbit, the region of space closest to Earth and where the satellite collision occurred. The program also aims to increase the number of objects that the Space Surveillance Network can track to 100,000, from around 20,000 today.

Air Force requests and Congressional appropriations for SSA have been growing dramatically over the past few years, especially since China’s ASAT test in 2007 and the satellite collision in 2009. These incidents are both in the top three worst debris-creating incidents in the history of the space age.

The FY 2011 Air Force budget request continues this upward trend.  If fully enacted, programs dedicated to improving SSA would total $900 million, an increase of $530 million or 70 percent over current levels.  Given the seemly ubiquitous importance of satellites in today’s global world, the investment seems warranted.

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