General Touts Images from ‘Neighborhood Watch’ Satellites

The head of Air Force Space Command praised the performance of a new military satellite system designed in part to scour space for potential threats.

The service last year launched a pair of satellites as part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). The spacecraft were built by Orbital Sciences Corp. to track other objects in geosynchronous orbit — a prized belt more than 22,000 miles above the equator where hundreds of military and commercial satellites operate.

“The pictures that we get off GSSAP are truly eye-watering and we’re learning things already,” Gen. John Hyten said at last week’s Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs, Colo. “We’ll continue to learn things because when you just have dots on a map, you really don’t understand. When you have a picture to look at, you start to understand this space.”

His predecessor, retired Gen. William Shelton, described the program as a “neighborhood watch” for satellites, including those in the military’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and Space Based Infrared System (SBIR) networks.

Two more satellites are expected to launch in 2016 for the new surveillance system, which complements existing telescopes on the ground and in low Earth orbits about 300 miles up. The program illustrates the rising concern among U.S. officials that other countries are developing anti-satellite technology rapidly enough to pose a threat to American hardware in space.

The U.S. and Russia have long agreed to avoid attacking each other’s geosynchronous satellites, which are designed to maintain the same position in space relative to the planet’s surface and critical for relaying everything from commercial television and radio to military surveillance and secure communications.

The U.S. and China, however, don’t have a similar agreement. What’s more, China in 2013 launched a ballistic missile to nearly geosynchronous orbit. Chinese officials defended the mission as a science experiment, but American analysts concluded it was really designed to test the potential of the anti-satellite missile Dong Ning-2.

“In our most valuable orbit, the geosynchronous belt, we need to understand if there are threats, if there are concerns — what is going on up there?” Hyten said. “Because just understanding where something is is not sufficient enough.”

He added, “So this satellite here is actually a very simple satellite, and when you look at it, you can see it’s basically just a sensor that can move and it’s flying in what is called ‘near geosynchronous orbit.’ It’ll fly around that orbit and we will be able to understand everything that is in the geosynchronous orbit to a very high quality.”

The spacecraft can perform so-called rendezvous and proximity operations, in which they maneuver to objects of interest for closer surveillance, according to an unclassified Air Force fact sheet about the program. Data will be sent from the spacecraft to ground control stations and collected for analysis at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, it states.