Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, announces new Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, during a speech at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium and Technology exposition on Feb. 21 in Orlando. / U.S. Air Force/Scott M. Ash
James Dean, Florida Today
(FloridaToday.com) - A newly declassified military space program will place satellites on the lookout for threats to national-security spacecraft high above Earth.
Four satellites launched in pairs, the first late this year from Cape Canaveral on a Delta IV rocket, will provide new eyes on exactly what is flying in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles up.
And should an adversary's spacecraft move too close to U.S. assets - to learn more about them or potentially launch an orbital attack - the action won't go unnoticed.
"The U.S. military has some very important national security satellites out there performing a range of missions, and they're worried about being able to protect those satellites, particularly against any kind of hostile action," said Brian Weeden, technical analyst with the Secure World Foundation.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, disclosed the previously secret Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, at a conference in Orlando last month.
"GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have, which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes," Shelton said, according to an Air Force report.
Details about the design and cost of the satellites built by Orbital Sciences Corp. were not discussed. The second pair is expected to launch in 2016.
Shelton said the program was made public as a deterrent. The hope is that if other countries know these spacecraft are up there, they might be less inclined to consider an aggressive move.
U.S. military spacecraft in that region of space - including some whose existence are not publicly acknowledged - provide early warnings of rocket and missile launches, collect intelligence, and would provide secure communications during a nuclear conflict.
Although the new program was a surprise, Weeden said, the Air Force has long expressed concern about the need for better "situational awareness" to protect these increasingly important space-based capabilities.
The use of satellites to study what other spacecraft are doing also isn't new.
Small experimental U.S. satellites reportedly inspected a missile warning satellite that had failed for unknown reasons in 2008.
As far back as 1967, U.S. spacecraft took pictures of the Soviet Union's lunar landing system during orbital tests, said Charles Vick, senior analyst with GlobalSecurity.org.
"This kind of thing, to protect ourselves against other nations' potential intentions, it's just a modernized version, a much more up-to-date and real-time kind of thing," said Vick.
Public disclosure of the new program was unusual, he said, "but I guess they realized somebody could figure it out."
Satellites in geostationary orbit circle the planet at the same speed at which the Earth rotates, so appear fixed in the sky.
To see what's operating in the geostationary belt around the equator, the new Air Force spacecraft will fly slightly lower or higher, thus moving a bit faster or slower and from side to side, to eventually drift past everything.
Other satellites aren't the only potential threats; orbital debris could also cause a disabling collision, though it's a bigger problem in lower orbits.
Only about 436 of 1,400 objects now being tracked in or near geosynchronous orbits are actively controlled satellites.
Space debris smaller than 10 centimeters cannot now be tracked reliably, but the new satellites could help.
Weeden said there has been no known attempt by one satellite to attack another. Speculation over decades has imagined a variety of ways that might be accomplished, from one satellite poking a hole in another's fuel tank, to parking in front of it to block its view, to setting off explosives.
Given limited information, it's hard to know how serious the threat is.
"Maybe China or Russia is doing something that we don't know about, but it's more likely the Air Force is being overly cautious," he said.
Some countries may worry the GSSAP satellites are capable of aggressive acts, a suspicion likely to grow if the U.S. is not transparent about their operations, Weeden said.
He thinks calling them spy satellites, however, is a stretch.
"Spying connotes that it's somehow malicious or bad," he said. "This is just collecting more information. It's intelligence."