In a recent telephone interview with DOD News, Maj. Gen. David D. Thompson, U.S. Strategic Command’s director of plans and policy at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, said the release of new high-quality positional information on space debris of an unknown origin will help owner-operators better protect their satellites from objects and ultimately create less space debris.
“We run a predictive program that shows where the objects are, where they will be in the future, and the potential for these objects to run into each other,” Thompson said.
Thompson explained that most of the debris that is considered “objects of unknown origin” resulted from launches or space collisions, but has not been definitively identified by source.
Thousands of space objects
The Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Vandenberg AFB, California currently tracks more than 17,000 objects in space on a continuous basis, Thompson said. Among those objects, he said, about 1,100 are active satellites currently conducting operations.
The average person has a lot more invested in space than he or she may realize, Thompson said.
“We have more than 30 GPS satellites on orbit today providing global navigation and positioning for the world,” the general said.
With modern smart phones offering so many diverse functions, the loss of connectivity and functionality could cripple a fair amount of consumers in the U.S. and abroad.
“Networks that run those and the timing required to keep them all in sync is enabled through the global positioning system that every U.S. citizen and just about every advanced global citizen depends on,” Thompson said.
Yet it is the other approximately 16,000 objects -- the ones not active and/or of unknown origin in space -- that JFCC Space and STRATCOM are most concerned with.
Objects present collision threat
Many objects, ranging from at least the size of the human fist to as large as the international space station, which is slightly larger than a full-sized soccer field, continue to pose a collision threat in space, Thompson said.
“There is also a high volume of debris smaller than the average fist that (JFCC Space) cannot track that are also on orbit today,” he said.
With old satellites and debris orbiting at thousands of miles per hour, the probability of a collision poses a threat to the continuing mission of operational satellites.
Exchange of space information
While some active satellites are not maneuverable, JFCC Space officials said they try to inform the owners of all satellites that they may want to take action to reduce the likelihood of collision.
“Exchanging information allows spacefaring organizations to take action to reduce the risk of a collision that could generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of additional space debris,” said Lt. Gen. John W. Raymond, the JFCC Space commander. “JFCC Space shares information globally because it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure the safety of the space domain.”
An example of space cluttering occurred in 2007, Thompson said, when the Chinese conducted an anti-satellite weapons test and almost immediately created 1,500 new objects that pose a risk to satellites in orbit.
STRATCOM tracks space objects
And after the collision of an inoperable spacecraft with a commercial communications satellite in 2009, STRATCOM took on the role for the world in keeping track of such objects and providing that warning to others to prevent the situation from worsening, Thompson said.
“We have the assigned responsibility for planning and conducting space operations,” said Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney, the STRATCOM commander.
“By sharing previously unavailable information on space objects, we’re helping nations that operate in space to do so safely and effectively,” Haney added. “It is one way we fulfill our assigned space mission for the U.S. and its allies, while also protecting capabilities important to citizens around the world.”
Yet it is a mission that extends beyond the average civilian.
Warfighters depend on satellites
Joint warfighters depend on advanced warning such as missile launch or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from satellite systems, Thompson said.
“It’s understanding what’s there (in space), what (the object) is doing, and how it poses a threat to our military mission, to our ability to support joint forces and contribute to the global good,” the Thompson said. “While space is a very big place, there are a lot of things up there.”
As such, for several years, JFCC Space has been responsible for monitoring, coordinating and synchronizing space operations for DOD.
“We are the single point of contact for U.S. military space operational matters,” Raymond said. “We are not, however, the only ones who operate in that environment.”
Many organizations in space
Many public, private, commercial and other governmental organizations conduct space operations.
“Space is not owned by anyone, it is used by all and we strongly support responsible and safe use of space and transparency of operations that go on in space,” Thompson said.
Reversing congestion and pollution in space, he said, is a complex task.
“We are talking decades or centuries before the environment will clean itself naturally so we have to share and act responsibly with this precious resource because it’s important to all of us,” Thompson said.