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Air Force plans to launch satellite that would keep tabs on space junk

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By Dan Elliott
Sunday, July 4, 2010

DENVER -- A new U.S. Air Force satellite will provide the first full-time, space-based surveillance of hundreds of satellites and thousands of pieces of debris that could crash into American and allied assets circling the Earth.

If all goes as planned, the Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite, scheduled for a July 8 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., will have an unobstructed, around-the-clock view of the increasingly heavy traffic in Earth orbit -- something the Air Force doesn't have now.

Currently, the Air Force relies on a ground-based network of radar and optical telescopes around the globe to monitor about 1,000 active satellites and 20,000 pieces of debris. The telescopes can be used only on clear nights, and not all radar stations are powerful enough to detect satellites in deep space orbit, about 22,000 miles from Earth.

From its orbit about 390 miles above the Earth, the new satellite will have a clear view of deep space.

"It really has tremendous capabilities," said Todd Citron, director of advanced space and intelligence systems for Boeing Co., prime contractor for the satellite, known as SBSS.

Citron said SBSS will revolutionize "space situational awareness," the military term for knowing not only where the objects are, but where they're headed and what might be in their path.

An Air Force official was more cautious.

"We do know that the sensor is going to provide a lot of capability," said Col. J.R. Jordan, mission director for the SBSS launch and vice commander of the Air Force Space Superiority Systems Wing. "We haven't really come up with broad statements" about how much SBSS is expected to improve monitoring, Jordan said.

Millions of pieces of space debris are orbiting the Earth, from tiny pellets of escaped coolant to spent rocket stages and dead satellites, said Brian Weeden, a former Air Force space operations officer who is now the technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation, a Colorado think tank and advocacy group that focuses on the use of space.

The Air Force monitors objects that are at least 10 centimeters across, or about 4 inches, big enough to destroy a satellite or a module of the international space station, Weeden said.

-- Associated Press


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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