Leaders of the U.S. Air Force and Space Force have pointed to the growing problem of orbital congestion, as they seek solutions that will decrease the chances of space collisions. Better space situational awareness (SSA) may also provide insights on the intent of potential U.S. adversaries in space and may serve to deter such adversaries.
Montreal-based NorthStar Earth & Space plans to launch three SSA polar orbit satellites, dubbed Skylark, late next year–most likely from the United States. Depending on demand, another nine satellites could be in orbit by 2024, NorthStar CEO Stewart Bain told Defense Daily on Feb. 12.
Such a space-based tracking system could dramatically improve the tracking of space objects and the timeliness of such tracking in low Earth orbit (LEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), and geosynchronous orbit (GEO).
“The military refers to it as near-synoptic coverage–near full coverage of space,” Bain said. “We’re not just looking at LEO, MEO or GEO, which is what the ground-based systems do. They see in one orbit or another. We can see all the orbits at the same time and monitor them together. That ability is unheard of. We spent a lot of time developing the algorithms to do it. It’s not in the hardware you do it. It’s in the software.”
NorthStar’s avant-garde SSA concept emerged a decade ago and took shape in 2018 with $65 million in venture capital funding from investors, including Charles Sirois, the CEO of Canada’s Telesystem Ltd.; the Rogers family, the owners of Rogers Communications Inc.; Thales; and Leonardo.
Thales Alenia Space–a joint venture between Thales and Leonardo–is building the Skylark satellites, based on the LEO-100 bus by Seattle-based LeoStella, Thales’ small satellite manufacturing joint venture, launched in March, 2018 with BlackSky.
While other companies may enter the fray to provide satellite tracking of on-orbit debris and other satellites, there appear to be inherent challenges. For example, SpaceX Starlink communications satellites may not provide the stability needed for optical sensor tracking of space objects.
Bain said that he has held meetings with Space Force and U.S. Space Command leaders, including Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David D. Thompson; Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the commander of Space Operations Command; Lt. Gen. John Shaw, the deputy commander of U.S. Space Command; and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Tom James, the commander of Joint Task Force-Space Defense.
“You’ve got 73 trillion cubic miles of territory to cover between low-Earth orbit all the way up to GEO,” Bain said. “What you’re doing is looking at it through a ‘soda straw’ with current systems that either are telescopes pointing in GEO or LEO ground-based systems that can only see what’s directly above them. Nobody is giving you the perspective of space.”
The primary ground-based space tracking system is to be the $1.6 billion Space Fence radar system by Lockheed Martin [LMT]. Located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the solid-state S-band radar system achieved initial operational capability on March 27 last year.
Operated by Detachment 4 of the 20th Space Control Squadron at the Space Fence Operations Center in Huntsville, Ala., Space Fence “provides significantly improved space surveillance capabilities to detect and track orbiting objects such as commercial and military satellites, depleted rocket boosters and space debris in low, medium, and geosynchronous Earth orbit regimes,” Space Force said. “Before Space Fence, the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) tracked more than 26,000 objects. With the initial operational capability and operational acceptance of Space Fence, the catalog size is expected to increase significantly over time.”
Bain said that Skylark will be the “equivalent of three Space Fences, all the way up to GEO.”
Last November, former Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett called on industry to help the Air Force and Space Force with cleaning up space debris to help avoid collisions in space (Defense Daily, Nov. 16, 2020).
“For a long time, the United States Air Force has been tracking space debris, but there’s a lot more to be done,” Barrett told the ASCEND 2020 forum sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “What we’d like to see in the future is not just tracking, but cleaning up that litter–figuring ways how do you consolidate, how do you get that hazard–17,500 miles per hour rocketing through space, it is a great hazard.”
“Just think about the GPS system alone,” she said. “Consider how much we depend upon the GPS system. It’ s free and accessible to everyone globally, and it’s operated by just eight to 10 people on a shift. So a total of 40 people operate this extraordinary system upon which so much of our current economy depends. It’s broadly used. It’s transformative, but it’s fragile. So that space debris is really a danger to things like our GPS systems. We’ve got to replace those. We’ve got to minimize their vulnerability, and we have to have, as the Space Force will do, space capabilities that will deter others from doing damage to that system upon which so much depends.”
According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO), there are 23,000 large pieces of debris greater than 10 cm tracked by the Space Force’s U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
“Prior to 2007, the principal source of debris was from explosions of launch vehicle upper stages and spacecraft,” per ODPO. “The intentional destruction of the Fengyun-1C weather satellite by China in 2007 and the accidental collision of the American communications satellite, Iridium-33, and the retired Russian spacecraft, Cosmos-2251, in 2009 greatly increased the number of large debris in orbit and now represent one-third of all cataloged orbital debris.”
U.S. Space Command said last September that the Combined Force Space Component Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. “monitors approximately 3,200 active satellites for close approaches with approximately 24,000 pieces of space debris, and issues an average of 15 high-interest warnings for active near-earth satellites, and ten high-interest warnings for active deep-space satellites, each day.”
In the only claim under the Liability Convention, the Soviet Union paid Canada some $2 million after the U.S.S.R.’s nuclear-powered Kosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite crashed in western Canada and scattered radioactive debris on Jan. 24, 1978.
Russia and China have been advancing direct ascent anti-satellite weapons (DA-ASAT), such as the Russian Nudol, and have not been interested in establishing space norms of behavior, but rather in working within the U.N. Committee on Disarmament to protect their DA-ASAT advantage through a treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).
The U.S. and other Western nations have opposed the PPWT, as they believe the latter is unverifiable and does not touch on terrestrial counterspace systems, such as DA-ASATs and directed energy weapons, which Russia and China are developing. U.S. Space Command has also said that Russia has a co-orbital ASAT, which demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic weapon in 2017 and last year.
Also last year, the United Kingdom and the U.S. said that Russia had launched the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites, which could pose a significant danger to low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites (Defense Daily, Jan. 21).
At the U.S. Space Command’s Commercial Sprint Advanced Concept Training exercise, which began in 2019, NorthStar Earth & Space “demonstrated we could pick up [nesting doll satellite] ‘spawning’ events 52 times faster than anybody else, 34 times more accurately,” Bain said.
“When you have superior situational awareness, the strategy of surprise attack is gone,” he said. “What’s happening now is people are getting away with stuff [in space] because you can’t see it.”