Cartwright: US Must Better Sat Awareness

The United States should improve the quality and sharing of data about the location of satellites and space debris with other countries, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James Cartwright said Thursday. He spoke after news broke about the destruction of a US commercial communications satellite in low earth orbit by a dead Russian satellite.

The United States should improve the quality and sharing of data about the location of satellites and space debris with other countries, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. James Cartwright told a space conference in Washington today. His remarks were made after news broke about the destruction of a US commercial communications satellite in low earth orbit by a dead Russian satellite.

Cartwright was speaking about the so-called space catalog for which the Air Force collects data from an array of sensors in space and on the ground. The US collects the data about active and dead satellites, as well as debris such as lost wrenches, shattered satellites and upper stages of old rockets. The tracking of data is performed by the Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks about 18,000 objects. However, the US refuses, on national security grounds, to share highly accurate data with other countries. France and other countries have pressed the US to improve the accuracy of the data, as well as improve its completeness. The orbits and existence of highly classified satellites are not shared at all, for example.

“I’d like to do more. I’d really like to find a way to ensure our sharing of data is more complete,” said Cartwright, one of the military’s most knowledgeable space experts from his time as head of Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb. The commercial satellite industry has been pushing for more complete data and more rapid sharing of data for several years, worried by events such as the Chinese anti-satellite test that created hundreds of pieces of debris [see picture]. Richard DalBello, vice president for government relations at Intelsat General, the government business subsidiary of the giant commercial satellite company, has spearheaded the industry push for better data. In a paper setting out for the need for improved situational awareness for the commercial industry, DalBello wrote that a “prototype active data center was established to study the feasibility of such approach following a workshop of commercial owners/operators held in February 2008 in Washington DC.” The data center is currently being tested to gauge its ability to better monitor space. “We have been in beta test for the last eight months or so. We have 120 sats and seven operators in the system today. But it is not yet an operational tool, ” DalBello told me after the conference.

The Pentagon did not predict the collision between the dead Russian satellite and the live one operated by Iridium Satellite LLC, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. “There are limits on your ability to track and compute every piece of orbiting man made object,” said Whitman. “It’s an unfortunate incident that highlights the importance of cooperation and collaboration in space,” he said.

Improving space situational awareness has been a high priority for the US since the Chinese anti-satellite test in January 2007. Former President George Bush issued a classified memo about seven months after the Chinese test with ordering the State and Defense departments to improve U.S. space situational awareness. However, monitoring dead satellites and predicting where they will be with a high degree of accuracy is extremely difficult, said a national security space source familiar with the conjunction equations. For example, after the Chinese anti-satellite test the US tried to perform conjunction analyses for the Space Station and several hundred satellites that might be affected by the debris cloud. The attempt overwhelmed the computers and the Air Force analysts performing the work.