The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory has selected Applied Defense Solutions to spend a year cataloging human-made objects in geostationary orbit using data solely derived from commercial space-surveillance sources.
Tom Kubancik, vice president of advanced programs at Columbia, Maryland-based Applied Defense Solutions (ADS), said the Air Force will compare the company’s cataloging effort against the current gold standard, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network’s Space-Track catalog, to see how the commercially compiled database compares. Kubancik declined to say how much the contract will be worth.
The cataloging project is the second piece of space situational awareness work ADS has picked up from the Air Force in recent weeks. The Air Force confirmed awarded a $24.3 million contract to ADS to bring commercially sourced space situational awareness data into the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, or JICSpOC, at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, to support experiments, exercises and contingency operations.
For the cataloging effort, ADS and teammates Lockheed Martin, Pacific Defense Solutions, and the University of Arizona, will “initiate a catalog from a zero starting point,” relying on non-government space surveillance capabilities, such as passive radio-frequency receivers, radar, and ground-based optical telescopes, to populate a database of orbital objects.
Air Force Space Command spokeswoman 1st Lt. Sarah Burnett, told SpaceNews via email that commercial space situational awareness capabilities have the potential to supplement the government’s capabilities by, for example, providing geographical coverage of “areas where the government does not have assets (radars, telescopes, etc.).
“Non-governmental SSA providers can also demonstrate new techniques, phenomenologies, and technologies, to collect, and exploit SSA more quickly than the government,” Burnett wrote. “The breadth of non-governmental SSA providers, including industry and academia, allows for multiple approaches to detection, tracking, identification, and characterization that will help guide future government SSA investments.”
Moriba Jah, director of Space Object Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, where some of the ADS-let cataloging work will be done, said commercial space-tracking capabilities can provide flexibility to government programs, and serve as a back-up in the event of an emergency.
“If, for whatever reason, you have defense-related services that stop working [or are] degraded or disrupted, commercial companies can come to the table, hopefully rapidly, with a variety of sensors and modalities of data collection that could supplement or augment government systems,” he said
Kubancik said the Air Force’s investment in commercial space situational awareness capabilities will return big dividends.
“With the government stepping up in a big way to commercial data and services, we see a great opportunity to help enable a healthy and competitive market landscape,” Kubancik said.
“As small, low-cost satellites and large constellations proliferate, and new space investments accelerate, commercial SSA data and services are needed throughout the entire design, planning, and operations lifecycle,” he said. “This is not a military activity, it is an engineering- and operations-management activity.”
Jah said SSA needs more investment, because many areas of knowledge are lacking. For instance, there’s no definitive list of everything that contributes to human-made objects floating in orbit.
“We know what we launch, we know when things explode, sometimes we know when things collide,” he said. “But some of this debris might be just because old dead satellites start flaking pieces and pieces start breaking off. But we don’t know. We haven’t done that kind of study yet.”