The United States and Australia have agreed to place a space radar system in western Australia to help track space debris that could damage satellites, according to a Defense Department statement.
Australia will operate the U.S. Air Force C-band, mechanical-tracking, ground-based radar system, which DoD said will provide a critical dedicated sensor for the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN), which is the principal system that the United States and its partners rely on to detect, track and identify objects in space.
The radar is a “very capable asset” for space surveillance and space object identification capabilities for objects in low-earth orbit (LEO), DoD said. This radar can accurately track up to roughly 200 objects per day and provide significant orbit and characterization information to help identify satellites, their orbits and potential anomalies.
When relocated, the radar will be the first low-earth orbit SSN sensor in the southern hemisphere. The new location provides needed southern and eastern hemisphere coverage that will lead to improved positional accuracies and predictions, DoD said.
The radar can also “significantly contribute” to tracking “high-interest” space launches form Asia.
The radar will be operated from the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station at North West Cape, Australia. The two nations will share relocation and operational costs for the system.
The U.S. is also conducting a competition to place a next-generation S-band radar at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands to also help track space debris. The program, called Space Fence, will replace the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS), or VHF Fence, that has been in service since 1961. The Air Force anticipates a “likely” contract award date of Spring 2013 and an construction start date of September 2013. The service also anticipates a construction timeline of 48 months with initial operating capability (IOC) in fiscal year 2017 and full operational capability (FOC) in fiscal year 2020.
The U.S. and Australia also agreed to work towards putting the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) in Australia. The SST, which DoD said previously was located in New Mexico, is a state of the art optical telescope designed and built by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that provides deep space surveillance. DoD said moving the SST to Australia would provide coverage of a more densely populated region of the geostationary belt.
The telescope provides an order of magnitude improvement in the ability to detect and track satellites from the existing U.S. system known as the Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) telescopes. Telescopes like the GEODSS are unable to provide a full picture of objects like microsatellites and space debris that threaten satellites. The SST will provide a wider field of view and will better track small objects at the deep space altitudes associated with geosynchronous orbits (GEO), which is roughly 22,000 miles from earth.
The telescope was integrated in the fall of 2010 and achieved first light in February 2011. Following this milestone, the system underwent an extensive check-out period and fine alignment phase that readied the system for a demonstration starting in October 2011. The SST completed its DARPA test and evaluation period in August.
“Together, these complementary platforms will provide highly-accurate tracking and identification of objects in space, such as satellites and debris, in order to improve overall spaceflight safety,” DoD said in a statement.
The United States and Australia are also discussing establishing a Combined Communications Gateway (CCG) in western Australia. This would provide both nations’ operators access to the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) communications satellites currently in orbit.