Space Situational Awareness Satellites
SSA operations in France are shared by the French Air Force and the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES). The missions for French SSA activities are similar to U.S. military efforts, attempting to catalog all low Earth orbiting objects for collision and launch avoidance. The French do use U.S. SSA-provided data, but they augment the data with data from their own systems.
The European Space Agency is funding its own SSA program, mandated in 2008, launched in 2009, and funded through 2016. Europe’s increasing dependence on space-based services and infrastructure was a key factor in developing alternatives to non-European SSA sources. ESA’s SSA activities involve more than observing and tracking Earth orbiting objects.
Russian SSA efforts are operated by the military, as is the case in the United States. Russia’s Space Control Center (TSKKP) falls within the Defense Ministry’s Main Space Intelligence Center. The focus of the TSKKP is to find, track, and identify objects orbiting the Earth. This allows the TSKKP to analyze the intent of satellites from foreign nations as well as determine whether objects in space pose an immediate threat to Russian space assets.
U.S.-based companies like Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI) are developing their own SSA initiatives. Supplying services based more on the USSTRATCOM vision of SSA to space operators, commercial SSA services, processes and teams offer an alternative to JSpOC. Although the notifications from the JSpOC are helpful, they still require a capable orbital analyst to analyze the data contained within the messages and calculate whether a particular satellite needs to move to avoid a collision. Hiring a full-time orbital analyst to focus only on collision avoidance can be expensive for smaller satellite operators, such as Planet Labs.
Since July 2010, the United States Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) has collected satellite orbit data and provided SSA to military, government, and commercial satellite operators through sending out predictions of close approaches for operational satellites. In October 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) stated the intent to spend $## billion on SSA activities and technology upgrades in the next five years.
A series of SSN upgrades are underway. In 2011, a DARPA-funded space surveillance telescope underwent testing. After nine years of development, the new telescope, located at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, is capable of capturing wide-field views of objects in GEO orbit. While the SSN uses radar signals to track objects in LEO, distant objects in GEO orbits are tracked by optical systems such as the DARPA telescope at White Sands and other telescopes in Hawaii; Socorro, New Mexico; and the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
One specialized type of system that uses both satellites and ground stations is dedicated to space situational awareness (SSA). An SSA system tracks satellites and other objects orbiting Earth. This is accomplished through a series of ground stations which are dedicated to scanning the sky via a variety of means in order to detect and plot the courses of objects in space. This data is then compiled and analyzed to create a series of predictions regarding possible collisions.