Russia’s test this month of a direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapon–a collision that generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, has the U.S. Space Force (USSF) wanting more tools, including sensors, to track the debris.
The Nov. 15 test of the Russian DA-ASAT weapon against one of that nation’s defunct satellites also created hundreds of thousands of smaller debris pieces, U.S. officials said (Defense Daily, Nov. 15).
“I can’t tell you how important it is to rapidly characterize debris,” Lt. Gen. B. Chance “Salty” Saltzman, USSF’s chief of operations, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Spacepower Forum on Nov. 29. “Sensors are very good at telling us where things were, but when you’re moving at orbital speeds of 17,000 miles per hour, a split second of error in a radar return creates a substantial amount of error in where the actual debris is. So, it’s a real art and a science to establish an orbit for each of those debris pieces. When you have to do that 1,500 times over the last month or so, you overwhelm the system so having more tools and more sensors to devote to that work is essential.”
“The ability to collect the data and then have the software fusion that supports characterization and building an orbit for each of those pieces of debris is essential to understanding the environment we’re in and providing the kind of indications and warning that we need to provide,” he said. “We need all the sensors that we can get and the fusion engines to put it all together.”
Debris removal and satellite repair will likely be important USSF missions in future years.
This month’s Russian ASAT test created roughly half the debris of a 2007 Chinese DA-ASAT test that created 3,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters.
Army Gen. James Dickinson, the head of U.S. Space Command, said that the debris created by Russia’s Nov. 15 DA-ASAT test “will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers.”
The Russian test appears to have been a Russian Nudol DA-ASAT weapon against the defunct Russian Cosmos 1408 electronic intelligence satellite, launched on Sept. 16, 1982. The Nudol is a ballistic missile designed to intercept satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).
USSF may increasingly turn its attention to orbits, such as cislunar, that potential adversaries may use to cloak their space efforts. NASA, in its quest to return U.S. astronauts to the moon, may help USSF in cislunar domain awareness and other endeavors, Saltzman said on Nov. 29.
“There’s a lot of orbits that we don’t take advantage of,” Saltzman said on Nov. 29. “Most of it is because we haven’t needed to, but as the environment becomes more contested and congested and as our communication capabilities/our antenna capabilities grow in capacity, additional orbits start to open themselves up. Then you can take advantage of some of these more exquisite orbits. There’s an infinite number of possibilities in terms of how you take advantage of the space domain. We just have to get the right technology in place and see what the trade-offs are in terms of cost/system performance against the orbit that we’re proposing. That’s a balancing act early on, but I see nothing but growth in this area.”
Last November, former Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett called on industry to help in cleaning up space debris to prevent future collisions in space.
Last year, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO) said there were 23,000 large pieces of debris greater than 10 centimeters tracked by the Space Force’s U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
“Prior to [the Chinese DA-ASAT test in] 2007, the principal source of debris was from explosions of launch vehicle upper stages and spacecraft,” ODPO said last year. “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.”