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 .
The spacecraft were developed covertly by the Air Force andunder 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 () early missile warning system and Advanced Extremely High Frequency ( ) 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.
The satellites could carry other payloads — such as radio-frequency sensors or jammers — that have not been disclosed.
GSAP is one element of the Air Force’s growing family of space situational awareness systems. Also in medium Earth orbit is the Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite built by a/ team and launched in 2010. Carrying an agile, slewable electro-optical sensor, SBSS was designed to look up into GEO from a lower orbit; the distances, however, likely prevent high-fidelity imagery.
The emergence of the GSAP program likely explains why the Air Force was holding off on a SBSS follow-on, which was called for by Boeing and Ball Aerospace. It is likely the GSAP satellites provide more flexibility and higher-fidelity data than SBSS, though officials haven’t compared their capabilities publicly.
GSAP “will have a clear, unobstructed and distinct vantage point for viewing resident space objects orbiting Earth in a near-geosynchronous orbit without the disruption of weather or atmosphere that can limit ground-based systems,” the fact sheet says. “Data from the GEO SSA system will uniquely contribute to timely and accurate orbital predictions, enhancing our knowledge of the geosynchronous orbit environment, and further enabling space flight safety to include satellite collision avoidance.”
The service also is expected to announce a manufacturer soon to build a new Space Fence site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. And a C-band radar and electro-optical telescope designed for SSA and now located in the United States will be moved to Australia to provide better coverage of the Southern hemisphere, where launches from China travel to orbit.
The GSAP satellites will be operated by the 50th Space Wing at Shriever AFB, Colo.