A Delta IV rocket carrying the first two satellites for the GSSAP program awaits launch on July 25. (United Launch Alliance)
WASHINGTON — The US Air Force will soon have new spy satellite capability that will provide oversight over other objects in space.
The first two satellites in the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) constellation will provide new capacity and tracking capability for objects in space, said the service’s top space official.
“This neighborhood watch twosome will help protect our previous assets in geo, plus they will be on the lookout for nefarious capability other nations may try to place in that critical orbital regime,” Gen. William Shelton, the head of US Air Force Space Command, told reporters. “We will learn a great deal about the geo traffic with the images produced from these two satellites.”
The launch was originally scheduled for July 23, but bad weather forced the scrubbing of the launch for both that day and the following evening. As of press time Friday, the United Launch Alliance was preparing for another attempt. The systems will go up aboard a ULA Delta IV rocket, Cape Canaveral, Florida.
GSSAP, designed by Orbital Sciences, was classified until February when Shelton, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary run down of current space programs, casually mentioned the satellite in a speech. He confirmed to reporters afterward that the program had been black and added that a second set of satellites will be launched in 2016 as backups.
The satellites are highly moveable, which Shelton praised for giving operators “the best possible vantage point for collecting images when required.”
The space community has raised concerns about whether GSSAP can be viewed as an offensive capability. After all, the ability to move a system around is intertwined with the goal of GSSAP — keeping an eye on what other nations are doing in space.
“The professed motivations for these satellite programs is to improve space situational awareness and help protect US national security satellites from potential threats,” said Brian Weeden, technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation. “I think that is true and these satellites would go a long ways towards improving SSA.
“But given the dual-use capabilities they will have, it’s an important question what steps the US government is taking to demonstrate that these are not part of an offensive weapons program.”
“These could certainly be considered offensive,” Marco Caceres, an analyst with the Teal Group, said. “Obviously, the US Air Force is primarily thinking of it as defensive or simply from a maintenance and repair standpoint. But if you have the ability to get close enough to other satellites to observe or repair or refuel, then sure, you could probably take them out.”
Shelton defended the right of the US to track and detail other systems in space, telling reporters “to answer the question you might be asking in your mind: we do have an inherent right to safely maneuver around and monitor potentially threatening satellites.”
He later outlined why a program like GSSAP is needed in the current era.
“There are myriad counter-space threats that we’re seeing on the near horizon,” Shelton said. “Not the mid and far term, we’re talking near horizon. We as a nation have to adapt.
“Up to this point in time I think we largely considered space to be a peaceful sanctuary,” he continued. “You could build relatively fragile spacecraft, you didn’t have to worry about necessarily defending them, other than potential collisions, but in terms of intentional acts interfering with your satellite, for the most part you didn’t have to worry about that. That’s not true now.
“So this new normal means you have to, just like we’ve adjusted aircraft as air defenses improved, we have to adjust our spacecraft constellation to survive in a very different environment.”
Tracking objects in space has become something of a cause for Shelton in his final year before retirement.
The service significantly improved its space situational awareness capabilities in early June when it awarded Lockheed Martin the right to develop the Space Fence program, consisting of a large S-band radar on the Kwajalein Atoll of the Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean. Service officials have said Space Fence will provide unprecedented data on what is floating in space, including small-yet-dangerous pieces of space debris. ■