The US Space Force (USSF) will test new ground-based telescopes to trace objects in orbit during the daytime. Once installed, the six telescopes will be able to keep an eye on the objects more than 22,000 miles distant and warn of space-based anti-satellite weapons approaching the US satellites.
Usually telescopes do not operate at the daytime, the new technologies presented by Numerica - a Colorado-based company, founded in 1996 - have an advantage over their parent developments. Interference from sunlight makes telescope tracking of space objects a difficult challenge and one that has, traditionally, required large and expensive telescopes to address. Numerica has been a pioneer in developing telescopes to provide daytime commercial tracking services, ensuring that these objects can be pinpointed within 24 hours. The company says its telescopes use “high-speed shortwave infrared cameras, customized optics, and advanced algorithms” to observe Earth-orbiting satellites. In addition, the Numerica assures the daytime telescopes also cheaper to operate. Currently, it has more than 130 optical sensors of different types at more than 20 locations all over the globe.
$3 million of funds invested in the development of the technology were allocated by the US Air Force. The first $750,000 of this was won as a Small Business Innovation Research award during a 2019 pitch-day event hosted by the Air Force, as the service intended to attract space industry enterprises to the military sector.
The six new daytime telescopes are being installed in Colorado as well as at locations in Australia and Spain, Todd Brost, the director of special projects at Numerica, confirmed.
“The greatest interest from the government side,” Brost said, “is maintaining custody of high-interest objects for longer periods of time, so you know whether they maneuver, or if they’re doing something unusual.”
The ability to watch satellites at all times obviously has significant implications for the military, especially following the confirmation from the Space Force last summer that Russia had conducted two on-orbit anti-satellite weapon tests in the previous three years. There have also been other instances of worrying activity related to Russian satellites, including so-called “inspectors” able to deploy other satellites themselves, and apparently dubbed “nesting doll” satellites by the US military.
Last year the US Armed Forces expressed concern over Russian inspector satellite that shadowed an American KH-11 spy satellite. For its part, Russia insists that its inspector satellites are intended to get close to Russian property exclusively, to examine whether there is a break-down or otherwise malfunction and maintain.
Inspectors are notably small and highly maneuverable, making their detection a complicated work to do. However, with a help of Numerica’s telescopes, the US Space Force could be able to keep an eye on any objects approaching their US counterparts, perhaps with the intent to disrupt or destroy them, or otherwise to spy on them. Moscow is testing technology that would provide it with the means of disrupting or destroying other space-based objects, whether by a kinetic attack, electronic warfare jamming, or even a high-powered microwave beam.
As well as the inspector satellites in the Cosmos family, other Russian satellites have also performed suspicious movements in recent years. According to the Center for Strategic and Internal Studies (CSIS), last year the Luch military communication satellite maneuvered next to seven other satellites of European, American operators and commercial Asian ones.
“Though these orbital maneuvers are no longer rare for this particular satellite, the vast majority of satellites that operate in [geostationary orbit] are stationary, which makes the activity of Luch highly unusual year after year,” CSIS reported.
The kind of capability offered by Numerica’s new ground-based telescopes could be very useful for the Space Force. Above all, keeping watching the movements of suspicious satellites from Russia or elsewhere would be a top priority for the US military, in order to protect its own space-based objects.
The importance of satellites to the US Armed Forces is hard to overestimate: communications and data-sharing, early warning, intelligence gathering, navigation and weapons guidance - all is possible to be provided. As such, during (or in advance of) a large-scale conflict, they would be prime targets for enemies capable of combatting them, of which Russia has the best potential.
Russia, however, is not the only power with access to various anti-satellite systems. China, and other countries, too, are also working on ground-based and air-launched interceptors and directed-energy weapons.
The new telescopes will be owned and operated by Numerica, but all imagery and data gathered will be made available to the Space Force. Brost also told that, in the future, building sites for the exclusive use of the military could also be a prospect, with “discussions” now underway between the company and the Pentagon.
Brost confirmed that a prototype telescope system is already tracking active satellites in the middle of the day “pretty consistently.” Next, the company will combine the imagery from its daytime telescopes with those taken from nighttime sensors to provide a complete picture.
Intriguingly, Brost also observed that, by using his company’s telescopes, the Space Force may also be able to secure imagery from locations that would otherwise be beyond its reach, perhaps for political or geostrategic reasons. “A couple of our sites that we’re looking at are in places that it’d be very doubtful that the U.S. government could put sites there,” Brost admitted.
Wherever these daytime telescopes are ultimately located, it all points to the Space Force looking to establish a satellite tracking sensor network that draws upon both military and commercial assets and technology and which is increasingly distributed.
Space Force also has additional space-surveillance radars as part of its $1.5 billion Space Fence system. Located on Kwajalein Island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Space Fence became operational just over a year ago and its radar data would be completed with telescope imagery as part of round-the-clock space surveillance operations. This system also helped to fill a general gap left by the decision to shutter the older Cold War-era Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS), also known colloquially as Space Fence, in 2013.
This latest deal between the US and Numerica underscores the increasing interest of Washington in leveraging private companies’ capabilities with regards to space operations to increase capacity in various areas, including communications.
The use of the Numerica telescope network is also further evidence that the Space Force is increasingly positioning itself as a critical strategic actor in any potential future confrontation with a sophisticated adversary with access to space.
The source: SpaceNews, The Drive