The two GSAP satellites will “drift” above and below the GEO belt, using electro-optical sensors to collect information on satellites and other objects in that region.
The watcher’s watcher … ?
The U.S. Air Force is planning to launch two new and previously classified space situational awareness satellites into geosynchronous orbit this year, according to Gen. William Shelton, who leads Air Force Space Command.
The spacecraft were developed covertly by the Air Force and Orbital Sciences under the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSAP), according to service officials.
The first two spacecraft will be boosted this year with two more to follow in 2016 to prevent a gap in surveillance on activities in the geosynchronous belt, Shelton said at the annual Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando. This is where commercial satellite communications are based, as well as critical national security assets such as the Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) early missile warning system and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellation designed to provide jam-proof communications for the president even during a nuclear event.
“One cheap shot” against Sbirs or AEHF would be “devastating” to the Pentagon’s capabilities, Shelton said of a potential anti-satellite attack.
The two GSAP satellites will “drift” above and below the GEO belt, using electro-optical sensors to collect information on satellites and other objects in that region, Shelton said. They will be maneuverable, allowing them to be “tasked,” much like reconnaissance aircraft, to collect intelligence on specific targets, he said. The satellites will provide “accurate tracking and characterization” of satellites, according to an Air Force fact sheet released after Shelton’s speech here.
The very fact that the Air Force has developed and is deploying such a capability underscores concerns from government officials about the vulnerability of satellites that have become interwoven in government operations at all levels. The GPS constellation is already easily jammable because its signal is relatively weak, but officials worry about more widespread jamming as well as kinetic attacks.
Shelton declined to say how much the satellites cost or how long they took to design and fabricate. However, they are small enough that two of them will be launched together this year on a Delta IV from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
Declassification was cleared by authorities in the U.S. government, in part to provide a deterrent effect to adversaries seeking to conduct hostile activities in space, according to a defense official. Also, the White House has said it will provide transparency as part of its space policy. Activities, especially of a maneuverable satellite in geosynchronous orbit, are detectable by allies and adversaries. Thus, releasing at least minimal information is a nod toward transparency and, potentially, aimed at quelling concerns that the capability will be viewed as offensive, the defense official said.
GSAP is, however, likely to be viewed by Russia and China as potentially hostile and could ignite a global debate about appropriate uses of space for military purposes.