Do you worry about what evil satellites lurk in the shadows of space? Do you worry about space debris and collisions constantly? Then have no fear, the United States Air Force (USAF) is ready to help. USAF General William Shelton announced the existence of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP): a pair USAF “Watch-dog” satellites. Revealing another classified program isn’t especially interesting on the scale of things, especially since program originators were likely consulted prior to the administration pushing out the acknowledgment the program exists.
What IS interesting are the USAF plans for the program’s current two satellites: Space Situational Awareness. According to Gen. Shelton, the operational mission of the satellites, once placed in geosynchronous orbit, will be to move about and observe other satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Other satellites, such as MiTEX from DARPA’s MiDSTEP and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s ANGELS programs have already experimented with capabilities such as GSSAP’s and have been proven to work.
Is it bad the USAF is going ahead to do this? Maybe yes, if only because it’s the military involved. Maybe no, if only because of a chorus of lamentations from nations around the world of space debris and unknown objects in the geosynchronous belt. These USAF “Watch-dog” satellites may allow the US to map out the belt and ensure satellites are where other countries and organizations say they are. So part of mitigating possible complaints from countries wary of US space situational awareness operations would be transparency on the US’s part.
The USAF and the US administration is putting a “watch-dog” spin on this—in the same way the NSA and US administration has put a “watch-dog” spin on telecommunications activities. The key distinction is the USAF is a very military organization. It’s meant to get ready to win wars for the US. A watchdog function is more of a civil function, one that is a policing function, and one that probably should be run by a civil and transparent organization.
Such an assertion is only bolstered by views that space is more of a “commons,” and activities occurring within the commons should be fairly straightforward. The US has had the luxury for a long time of not worrying about being crowded in space. Satellites and rockets required lots of money and research to get spacecraft in orbit. But with commercial space companies around the world moving quickly to build cheaper small satellites, spacecraft, and rockets, that luxury no longer exists. Space, at least the part of it immediately hugging the globe, is becoming a necessary “space-commons” for everyone.
With the increasing number of space participants in mind then, if an unknown object is out there, then EVERY GEO belt space operator should be alerted of a possible problem. This may be why the USAF shouldn’t be operating this system. Transparency and the USAF don’t play well together (for good reason). And civil roles and the military, at least in the US, are supposed to be separated. In some ways, the USAF is taking the role of traffic police in space, trying to keep things moving and marking the hazardous objects with little orange reflectors.
Unidentified orbiting objects should not be treated as military threat, but more as a threat to the commons (such as when a huge pothole appears in a road)—a very civil role. If the USAF notes hazardous objects, and notifies all space operators of the problem, then such a role would likely be more acceptable to countries whose space activities are on the up and up. Such notifications would allow for space operators from all countries and companies to conduct very thorough and accurate debris assessments and build possible collision mitigation plans.